Surfacing equity, diversity and inclusion in academic-policy engagement

This blog is written in the context of the Universities Policy Engagement Network (UPEN) report on surfacing equity, diversity and inclusion within academic-policy engagement.

The report summarises views and experiences of policy knowledge mobilisers [1] on how they support academic-policy engagement initiatives that embed or take into account EDI. In this blog, we reflect on the role of the knowledge mobiliser in supporting EDI and engagement with different types of knowledge. To illustrate further, we draw examples from two knowledge mobilisers in different roles at UCL and highlight their practices. [2]

We emphasise three points:

A brief summary of the university knowledge mobiliser system

Policy knowledge mobilisers exist in a variety of structures and roles within universities. At UCL for instance, a number of our policy knowledge mobilisers are situated within UCL Public Policy, where they work to connect researchers and policy professionals so that they can explore common interests at different stages of their respective research and policymaking processes. However, they also exist within the roles of faculty impact managers, public engagement offices, deans of schools and researchers themselves. They span, and challenge, the academic/professional staff divide. They work closely at the nexus, which may involve them being Principal Investigators or Co-Investigators on research projects, offering and drawing on their policy experience and skillset to enhance a research project’s impact. They often work to institutional priorities and policies, and in this context, the ways they work and the values they hold are bound by the universities legal commitment to the Equalities Act.

Knowledge mobilisers enable the engagement of different types of knowledge within universities

Who a knowledge mobiliser is, what they do and how they work is poorly understood in the context of how policy engagement and impact of research happens within universities.

At the core, this role challenges preconceptions and traditional models of how academic-policy engagement comes about – that it happens only by academic individuals fostering a personal relationship with a policy partner. The knowledge mobiliser model presents an alternative for facilitating, opening-up the knowledge base and making opportunities to engage research with policy more accessible. Not unlike traditional models, knowledge mobilisers also foster relationships with policy partners, but at the heart of that relationship is the focus on opening pathways to engagement to a wider research and policy community around a particular policy question or opportunity.

We need to change our understanding of what expertise means

‘When responding to requests for expertise, I deliberately try and include a diverse range of people in the response. However, this is not always possible because (a) not all of the characteristics of diversity are visible from people’s profiles and (b) there is not always someone who has the necessary expertise that has an aspect of diversity. (UPEN EDI Report, p. 26)

In the UPEN report, we identified a major challenge perceived by knowledge mobilisers when promoting academic-policy engagement opportunities as: ‘Diversity versus Expertise’. Knowledge mobilisers when presented with requests for engagement prioritised their researchers’ research relevance to the call. Diversity was acknowledged, but it was often framed in tension with ‘research relevance’ or even prior track record of policy engagement. The understanding of diversity was often limited to perceived ‘identifiable’ characteristics, such as gender, ethnicity and career level. Whilst knowledge mobilisers are knowledgeable, they tend to be specialist-generalists, skilled in the ways of ‘doing’ academic-policy engagement, rather than the subject themselves. Given this, the approach described above is highly problematic for three reasons. Firstly, it rests on the knowledge mobiliser having to make a technical assessment of who is relevant based on publicly available information, usually at speed, without necessarily knowing if the information is up to date or having the deep or specific subject knowledge to assess its direct relevance. Secondly, it risks entrenching simplistic notions of what expertise and diversity is. Thirdly, knowledge mobilisers can be tempted to make assumptions about people’s identity (for instance, gender and ethnicity).

We need therefore to frame and define expertise differently. ‘Expertise’ and excellence is often rewarded within university systems in a hierarchical, career-level driven way. We need to challenge this and embed ‘expertise’ within and at the heart of ‘diversity’ – so that engagement that challenges the notion of engaging with ‘usual suspects’ is seen as valuable and that difference is helpful for shaping, framing and understanding issues better. So rather than a knowledge mobiliser thinking or being advised to choose between someone with research relevance or someone who brings in ‘diversity’ to an opportunity, they instead regard expertise as encompassing both.

That said, this also speaks to the workshop’s conversation around bringing in lived experience and the importance for knowledge mobilisers to have the dedicated time, resource and space to embed this voice within academic-policy engagement and support this way of working across their institution.

We believe that knowledge mobilisers are in a great position to challenge and frame differently the perception of ‘expert’ at an institutional level in the first instance, by:

  1. Challenging the design of academic-policy engagement by including examples and case studies from a diversity of disciplines, career stages, backgrounds;
  2. Take an intersectional approach within their institution, to understand who is most disadvantaged within the academic-policy system to work and design equitable approaches to engagement;
  3. Champion an ethical, over expedient, approach to academic-policy engagement, for instance through the provision of knowledge exchange events with accessibility and reasonable adjustments accounted for at the outset.

This blog is part of the research project Rethinking Policy Impact

A UK-wide conversation on the principles, goals and approaches that should guide the policy impact agenda in higher education.

We need to better understand our research communities in order to understand what equitable approaches we can take.

The term ‘Diversity’ is often used as a catch all phrase to encompass anything and everything. However, we argue we need to be specific about who and how, because only through specific actions can we learn how academic-policy engagement can become more equitable, inclusive and diverse. This was a key recommendation we made at UPEN alongside the Scottish Policy and Research Exchange (SPRE) in our response to the UKRI EDI consultation.

In the UPEN report, we make clear that currently knowledge mobilisers do not routinely capture EDI data on their academic-policy engagements, citing that they don’t know how, and that it doesn’t always feel appropriate to ask for it. Knowledge mobilisers aren’t usually trained in this area, which is compounded by the context that not all research funders ask for the data. As a result, at an institutional level, knowledge mobilisers have limited knowledge about who they are engaging with, but even less information about who they are not engaging. This makes it particularly challenging to understand whether opportunities are open, accessible, inclusive and equally accessed by all.

Because of the connecting role they have, however, knowledge mobilisers are in a strong position to be able to understand who they are and aren’t engaging in academic-policy opportunities. This could be done through purposeful EDI data capture as previously mentioned, but also through regular catch ups, and engagement across schools and departments to help create a baseline dataset which can be used to trial and embed effective equitable approaches. This is currently being tested through the CAPE project. In the IPPO project, stakeholder mapping is being run across each workstream to capture any gaps in policy stakeholder engagement, including from minority communities as well as from interest groups whose voice is often eclipsed in the policy community by more traditional interest groups across the UK.

It will continue to be difficult to take an equitable approach if we carry on separating individualistic systems which emphasise the lone academic developing their relationship with a policy contact out from the more holistic university knowledge mobilisation systems that often underpins academic policy engagement.


In short, we believe that knowledge mobilisers are well placed to enhance the diversity and types of knowledge being used in academic-policy engagement:

  • By acting as a conduit within universities to access ‘diverse’ voices, and perspectives in academic-policy engagement opportunities;
  • By challenging the dominant conception of ‘expertise’ and trial new formats of recognising expertise which is situated within, as opposed to separate, to the concept of ‘diversity’;
  • Through being equipped with the skills and tools to capture purposeful EDI data that help drive their institutions’ strategies and policies on equitable approaches to supporting underrepresented groups with policy engagement and impact opportunities.


[1] Knowledge mobilisers (also referred to as knowledge brokers) is a term used to describe university colleagues whose remit includes translating, supporting, enabling and engaging research to a non-academic audience (for instance into policy, public engagement, industry, business etc). Colleagues tend to be members of the ‘professional services community’, but may also include researchers and lecturers too. For the purpose of this blog we focus on the knowledge mobilisers who work explicitly on policy engagement. The term is not well known across the HEI sector so one challenge is simply raising awareness that these roles exist.

[2] The two knowledge mobilisers referred to here are Kayleigh Renberg-Fawcett, UCL’s  coordinator for the Capabilities in Academic Policy Engagement (CAPE) project and Katrina Rattu, policy advisor for the International Public Policy Observatory (IPPO)).

Example 1: Network engagement

For instance, Kayleigh as CAPE coordinator and previously the UPEN network manager, challenges policy partner approaches to sharing opportunities with the research community to make them more open and inclusive, as opposed to relying on the traditional model of a policy partner reaching out to contacts within their networks who they are already familiar with (commonly referred to as engaging with the ‘usual suspects’). For instance, this is done through asking the policy partner to publicly publicise their academic-policy need via a sign up form, and state that interested academics do not need previous policy experience in order to engage. It also includes communicating the academic-policy opportunity in a variety of ways through university communications systems, which involves targeted emails, communication through networks and intermediaries, and publishing on newsletters and social media – something which is nearly impossible for the policy partner to do. These approaches are reviewed and analysed in order to better understand ‘what works’ for specific opportunities.

Example 2: Research funded project

In her role as Policy Advisor in IPPO, Katrina embeds EDI knowledge mobilisation in the context of policy engagement throughout the project. IPPO seeks to enable UK national, devolved and local governments to draw on evidence to make better short and longer-term policy decisions throughout the COVID-19 crises. However, the approach being taken in regards to knowledge exchange moves away from the traditional ‘supply push’ method, relying on the traditional policy dissemination approaches such as policy briefings and scanning for engagement opportunities in Westminster and moves towards a more iterative, double helix model. Katrina works with experts and decision-makers to identify key issues, the supply team to formulate review questions and the PI and Co-lead to engage with policy stakeholders throughout the process to shape supply and demand. When it comes to scanning for policy stakeholders they look to engage all tiers of government within the UK, proactively engage with local authorities to bring in the localised perspective, and regularly engage community groups with lived experiences to ensure research is fit for purpose. They’ve also developed an events process to support these engagements which amplifies voices that may not yet be well established on the public stage in order to be heard in the academic-policy exchange space.

Katrina Rattu is Policy Advisor, International Public Policy Observatory, at UCL
Kayleigh Renberg-Fawcett works in Capabilities in Academic Policy Engagement at UCL and is Co-Chair of UPEN EDI committee
Dr Olivia Stevenson is Deputy Director of UCL Public Policy and Co-Chair UPEN EDI committee

The RSE’s blog series offers personal views on a variety of issues. These views are not those of the RSE and are intended to offer different perspectives on a range of current issues.

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