Policy Idol finalist Bakht Baryar tells his story

Bakht_PolicyIdolBakht Baryar was a final year BSc Political Economy student at King’s College London and a finalist at Policy Idol 2015.  His pitch titled “An anchor in Africa: the value of the state of Somaliland” won Bakht the award for Best Delivery at the competition.  In this blog post, to coincide with the launch of Policy Idol 2016, Bakht tells us why he decided to enter the competition and what it was like to take part.  You can read the details of Bakht’s pitch and watch his winning three minute pitch online. Continue reading

Do school uniforms improve students’ behaviour or academic performance?

A few weeks ago Professor Jonathan Grant – director of the Policy Institute at King’s – got involved in a Twitter exchange on the benefits of school uniforms. This was prompted by frustrations with his daughters’ school apparent obsession with enforcing a school uniform policy at – in his view – the expense of focusing on the ‘core business of education’.  In sharing his concern with colleagues in the Policy Institute a debate ensued on ‘what is the evidence that school uniforms improve academic achievement and behaviour?’  Being an inquisitive team that never turns down a challenge, Research Assistant Rachel Hesketh looked at the evidence.  This is what she found…  Continue reading

Bacon and Waldegrave: Towards a Broader Definition of impact


Professor Denise Lievesley, Dean of the Faculty of Social Science & Public Policy, King’s College London

‘Impact’ has a bad rep, particularly in the context of REF. Indeed, I suspect it has become one of the most used (and probably misused) words in the academic lexicon. The term was originally imported into the Research Excellence Framework after a review in 2011 and referred to ‘any social, economic or cultural… benefit beyond academia… underpinned by excellent research’. Over time, this definition has been tightened up and is now most often rendered as ‘the demonstrable contribution that excellent research makes to society and the economy’.

The idea of consciously pursuing social and economic benefits worries many who argue that the purpose of research should not be to have social benefits or commercial potential but (in the words of one academic) “to multiply ideas, enrich minds, approach truth, stimulate debate, excite academic exchange and enhance lives in ways too wonderful to measure”. Academics should not, so the argument runs, answer the questions of others; rather, they should produce research for the sake of research; if there are positive outcomes, so be it. If not, well, that’s just fine as well.

Right at the heart of this debate are what I see as a set of misconceptions about what impact actually is. These misconceptions are critical because they have consistently skewed the debate about impact and cleaved a great divide between the two extremes of that debate – between ‘applied’ and ‘blue skies’,  ‘curiosity-driven’ and ‘end-user driven’, ‘practical’ and ‘theoretical’.

The first of these crucial misconceptions is that impact is a relatively new concept. For some, it is synonymous with REF 2014; others trace it to the 1993 White Paper by William Waldegrave, ‘Realising Our Potential’ which spoke of harnessing ‘strength in science and engineering to the creation of wealth in the United Kingdom’. Waldegrave’s paper may refer to impact and was certainly a formalized statement about the government’s desire to link research to economic benefits and a wider knowledge economy, but it is far from the first statement about research having an effect beyond academia. For that, we can go back at least as far as Francis Bacon, who in 1620, wrote

There is another powerful and great cause of the little advancement of the sciences, which is this: it is impossible to advance properly in the course when the goal is not properly fixed. But the real and legitimate goal of the sciences is the endowment of human life with new inventions and riches.

Impact – benefitting humans and society – has long been a central part of the scientific – indeed, the broader academic – endeavour.

The second misconception is that the impact agenda stifles ‘blue skies’ research which, by virtue of having no identifiable outcome or product, allows for the creation of new ideas and technologies. The classic examples of what we might term research serendipity are the discovery of products such as penicillin, artificial sweetener, superglue and teflon (though it was not, as is often mistakenly thought, discovered as part of the Apollo Program, but in research on refrigerants). But the point is that serendipitous ideas and inventions can come, just as easily, from ‘applied’ research as they can from ‘blue skies’; the Apollo Program might not have been the reason Teflon was discovered, but it is the reason that a whole host of other inventions were: memory foam, freeze-drying and space blankets. Or to put it another way, there is no reason that government- or client-led research should not allow for the accidental discovery of new knowledge.

The third misconception is that impact is the be-all-and-end-all of research; the utopian goal; the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow towards which all academics must march. The corollary is that all research should be about impact. If this were the case, impact’s murky reputation might well be justified – not all research should be about providing answers to questions posed by government or industry, just as not every policy decision should be based on specially commissioned research. However, the crucial point is that this is not the case. Indeed, impact is still the tiny minority of research and, as things stand, universities need to submit impact statements for up to 1 in 10 of the academics in the REF.

The thing that underpins all these misconceptions is how we define impact. If we see it as yet another irksome, even contemptible, auditing hoop through which academics must jump in order to attract government funding, then it is, perhaps, not surprising that criticisms are leveled at it. But impact goes so far beyond that: it is about social, economic, political, technological and cultural benefits that world-class research produces; it is about accountability – about universities justifying the money they receive to the taxpayers who, ultimately, give it. In an era of austerity and budget cuts, academics have to prove that they are worth the investment and one way that they can do this is by contributing positively to the world outside the academy. That will involve leaving ivory towers behind.

Evidence-based policy and the precautionary principle

Post by The Rt Hon David Willetts MP

Professor Jonathan Grant and Dr Benedict Wilkinson make some very important points about evidence-based policy in the first post. In particular, I welcomed their point that whilst evidence has much to contribute to policy, it is – and should be – part of a wider mix. The decisions of political parties ought to be broadly predictable on the basis of their character and beliefs – they cannot just shift every time a new piece of evidence comes in.

Sometimes over-reliance on one specific piece of evidence can leave you vulnerable. I remember being influenced by Leon Feinstein’s very interesting paper for Economica in 2003 called Inequality in the Early Cognitive Development of British Children. He showed that bright poor kids fell behind rich dim kids by the age of 7. I served on Nick Clegg’s social mobility group and recommended this powerful evidence to him and he too was impressed and cited it. But Leon’s work was challenged by other academics because it was affected by reversion to the mean. The result was that the Guardian ran a piece that the Coalition’s social mobility strategy was undermined because the research on which it rested had been disproved. That is not, of course, a reason for giving up on evidence-based policy: but it is a reminder of how careful we have to be in using it.

Actually a lot of evidence is fed into our policy process in the UK – and the Coalition is good for evidence as there are colleagues sitting around the same Cabinet Committee who may not share the same tribal instincts but might respond to some good clear evidence. Moreover, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser and the network of chief scientists in each Whitehall Department are powerful advocates of evidence-based policy. Sir Mark Walport is the Government’s empiricist-in-chief. The Fukushima crisis showed the enormous value of this system. Some countries – such as the French – advised their nationals to leave Tokyo because of the danger from nuclear radiation. Our then chief scientist – Sir John Beddington – advised that whilst it was a very serious accident there was not a danger which warranted such action. Nobody would have trusted a politician to make that assessment but our Chief Scientist was relied upon. Now the Japanese government is looking at whether they should create a similar post – and we have enormous goodwill in Japan as well.

The public response of EU Energy Commissioner Gunther Oettinger to Fukushima is, by contrast, a case study in what goes wrong when all empirical rigour is abandoned. He said: ‘There is talk of an apocalypse and I think the word is particularly well-chosen. Practically everything is out of control. I cannot exclude the worst in the hours and days to come’. Several well-respected British scientists – including Jim Al-Khalili, Simon Singh and David Spiegelhalter – rightly complained about this intemperate statement in an open letter to me as science minister. After that incident Scotland’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Anne Glover, was appointed as the first Chief Scientific Adviser to the EU. Her term came to an end with the old Commission but it is very disappointing that apparently the Junker Commission has decided to abolish the post. This is very bad news. The Commission does not have a good reputation for acting on the best available evidence and some, if not much, of the time, NGO campaigns get in the way of the scientific evidence as they have, to take two pertinent examples, on GM crops and nanotechnology.

This is where the Precautionary Principle comes in to play. Rightly understood, it refers to the extremely careful assessment of risk; all too often, however, it is misinterpreted to mean that nothing can be done until we know all the effects of some new technology. Innovations may carry risks but they are frequently lower than those presented by existing technology. The EU’s Physical Agents Directive 2004, for example, sought to manage the risk of exposure to electromagnetic fields. But it set the limits for occupational exposure so low that some procedures using MRI scanning in hospitals would have become illegal across Europe and instead there would have been more use of X Rays which are actually more dangerous. It took years of lobbying to get something more sensible.

There are arguments for changing the exact way the post of EU Chief Scientific Adviser is constructed. Anne Glover’s post was a personal appointment advising the President of the Commission and she did suffer from not having a solid base in the Commission’s directorates. It is not too late for Mr Junker to create a new post – or even better, a network – across the Commission. That is the right way forward.

The Rt Hon David Willetts MP was Minster for Universities and Science from 2010 to 2014 and is now a Visiting Professor at King’s College London.

A competitive landscape for providing services is an opportunity for evidence-building.. but who will benefit?

By Jennifer Rubin and Emma Disley

In a tight fiscal climate the UK government has been an innovator in ways to fund and deliver effective public services. New funding mechanisms, including social impact bonds (SIBs) and other forms of ‘payment by results’, aim to broaden the market for provision of public services and reduce financial risk by ensuring the government does not pay for ineffective services (Cabinet Office 2010). Continue reading