Programme Director: Interaction with policymakers – an international perspective

17 May 2021

New links between politics and science are being built around the world both through funding instruments and at individual universities. A webinar hosted for SRC-funded projects in November featured a speech by Robert Doubleday, Executive Director of the Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP) at the University of Cambridge.

CSaP was established around eleven years ago. It has an ambitious mission: to help improve the quality of public policymaking by pioneering new ways of bringing academia and government together. CSaP was originally founded on donations, but it now relies on enrolment fees as its main source of income.

Doubleday sees CSaP’s role as that of a “broker”. Three times a year CSaP invites applications from policy professionals, government officials and decision-makers wishing to join its Policy Fellowship programme. The applicants each have questions related to their work that they want to explore. The two-year programme starts with five days spent at the University of Cambridge. There are a little over 70 active Fellows at any one time.

CSaP organises one-to-one meetings between the Fellows and the university’s researchers. The aim is to create a trusting and open atmosphere that encourages both sides to ask questions and search for answers creatively and unrestrainedly. Doubleday estimates that CSaP has in its history brokered more than 10,000 discussions between policymakers and researchers.

It particularly seeks to make unexpected connections so that issues can be explored from multiple different perspectives and starting points. The idea is for both sides to be able to learn from each other, establish new contacts and keep the relationships for the future. CSaP maintains this ever-expanding network – currently consisting of more than 400 policymakers and more than 100 researchers – by organising various kinds of events and corresponding actively with policymakers.

Most policymakers who join the programme greatly appreciate their time at Cambridge and find it both inspiring and empowering. CSaP provides the setting for encounters and debate, and the Fellows bring the synthesis and thinking. Doubleday believes that what particularly appeals to the Fellows is the space and time the programme gives them to focus wholeheartedly on being curious and willing to learn. For him, CSaP is like a party host whose job it is to create the right atmosphere and bring together an interesting group of people in a setting where new, exciting relationships and insights can be forged.

Although CSaP has only existed for just over a decade – a blink of an eye in the 800-year history of the University of Cambridge – its ethos fits in perfectly with the institution’s spirit. The prevailing school of thought at Cambridge is that new ideas are born from freedom, time and space. The university’s long and successful history in science gives it not only confidence but perhaps also the patience to wait for change and development.

Finnish SRC-funded research projects and programmes seek concrete solutions to significant societal challenges through high-quality research. Influencing society and interacting with stakeholders are at the heart of every programme and project at every stage of the funding period. Many of the researchers involved are specifically looking to make a difference and have clear goals in mind. However, it can take a long time for a project’s impact to materialise, and the way in which science evolves after a project has ended is difficult to predict. That is why our strategic research, too, could benefit from the Cantabrigian approach: feeding curiosity and providing the freedom and space that people need to think. We may not always know when and where impact will happen, but we can help it along by creating opportunities and the right conditions.

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