Sir Humphrey and the Professors: What does Whitehall want from Academics?

Colin Talbot, Carole Talbot

Research output: Book/ReportCommissioned report


Executive summaryWhat Do Policy-Makers Want From Academics?A Survey of Senior Civil Servants Views on the Accessibility and Utility of Academic Research and ExpertiseWhat do (civil service) policy-makers want from academics? A seemingly simple question, and one to which you would already think we had a pretty good answer.Academia represents a very rich source of ideas, facts and theories about how public policies of all sorts might work (or not). Somewhere around 25,000 to 50,000 UK academics work on specifically policy-relevant areas – this represents a massive pool of knowledge that could help policy-makers.Despite this obvious situation, actually very little is known precisely about how academia and policy-makers interact. There are some research projects that have explored the issue, but these have mostly been case studies from which it is hard to generalize. We decided to ask the whole of the British Senior Civil Service (SCS) how they relate to academic research and expertise. We invited all 4,000+ members of the SCS to fill-in our on-line survey. About 8% responded, with a representative gender-balance and spread across nearly all policy areas, which is a reasonably good sample. Moreover the variations in responses suggest there was no obvious self-selection bias – it certainly wasn’t only those positive about academic outputs that responded.We asked a series of questions about how they access and use academic research and expertise and what impact this has on policy-making. Some of their answers were expected, and some were surprises that challenged standard assumptions.Overall, the impression from our survey is that the majority of senior civil servants actively engage positively with academic outputs. However, it is also clear that a significant minority does not engage at all with academics and that many do so in fairly limited ways.Unsurprisingly perhaps, senior civil servants had a predilection for “pre-digested” results of research and academic expertise. Their preference for “first contact” was briefings or reports 79%), or media reports of academic outputs in newspapers and weeklies (61%) or professional journals (55%).Rather more surprisingly, a majority (55%) also claimed to be accessing the more ‘classic’ academic outputs – the ‘gold standard’ of peer-reviewed academic journal articles – far more than was expected (especially given restricted access of costly academic journals).Another key finding for academics and universities is that senior civil servants value general expertise as much, or more, than they do specific research. Given that the Research Excellence Framework and research councils guidance has tended to focus on the direct impact of specific pieces of research, this response from Whitehall might provide a welcome corrective.When asked about which academic disciplines are most useful to them, public policy (63%), economics (60%) public administration (54%) and business and management (49%) top the responses. This is again surprising, and interesting to academia, because two of those four ‘disciplines’ – public policy and public administration - do not really have the usual paraphernalia of academic disciplines in the UK. There are few undergraduate and masters courses, no prominent academic associations or conferences and only a few UK based journals. Recent moves to establish MPA (Masters in Public Administration) and MPP (Masters in Public Policy) (notably for the latter at both Oxford and Cambridge) suggest some movement, but the UK is a long way from having well developed academic communities in these areas compared to most other large developed economies.Senior civil servants were also surprisingly positive about academics playing a role in the policy process: as information and knowledge providers (86%); informal advisers (67%); formal advisers or participants (62%); and as providers of training and education for policy-makers (63%).The latter finding about education provision, coupled with the findings about the public policy and public administration disciplines, suggest that there is a gap for higher education to provide more advanced training for policy-makers in the civil service?Finally our survey provides some unsurprising confirmation of the dominance of London, Oxford and Cambridge as sources of academic expertise for Whitehall. It also suggests that personal contact in some form is an important ingredient to academic-civil servant interchange. However our results do explode one small myth – that Oxbridge educated civil servants tend to go back to their old tutors for advice – only 11% claimed to access academic expertise through this route.The survey is clearly only a partial view of the interchange between academia and Whitehall and there are many other issues to explore. It does however provide some useful ‘baseline’ data about how senior civil servants currently access and use academia.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherUniversity of Manchester
Number of pages29
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2014


  • Academic research, Expertise,


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