Comment Blog 6 September, 2022

Launching the Reform Scholars Programme: connecting the academic with the real world

Simon Kaye
Director of Policy

Here at Reform we have set ourselves the task of tackling the underlying problems that afflict public services in the UK. We’re not content with proposing tweaks to systems, we want a fundamental rethink.

The policy formation process is a complex one, and if we hope to identify and advance the best ideas, we must recognise that they will come from many sources. It is because we know we don’t have all the answers that we are launching our new Reform Scholars network – we want to bring the best brains to bear on Britain’s most entrenched challenges.

Our universities are home to original thinking, and public policy experts are often deeply involved in designing and evaluating new approaches. Academics benefit from deep specialisation, allowing them to analyse particular social questions and phenomena in a level of detail that offers insights and lessons relevant to policymakers.

Yet there is a gap between the policy establishment and the expertise and fresh thinking that exists in academia. Decision makers often lack an understanding of relevant contemporary research. They have little access to the new thinking that emerges from the world of academia, and when they do, it is often targeted at academic audiences, presented in languages that are alien to policymakers and practitioners. Only the work of a select few, senior academics cuts through.

This means that valuable insights – insights that could lead, via better policy, to better outcomes for citizens – never get beyond academic circles. And it makes it harder to break the groupthink and confirmation bias that too often pervades the policy world, limiting the quality of decisions and the range of ideas that are considered.

Reform Scholars is a new and exciting programme to bridge that gap. We want to:

  • Connect innovative academic thinkers with policymakers: breaking into the policy bubble can be hard to do. Academics can seek a relationship with policy-focused organisations as a fellow or research associate, but this is often either tokenistic, or for well-established names. They may also be invited to give evidence to a parliamentary committee or attend the odd discussion, but this is rare. Our Scholars will be active participants of the Reform network, building connections and adding value to the policy world.
  • Provide a platform to showcase emerging academic thinking and talent: there is a fairly predictable cycle of well-established academics offering analysis and political commentary, but early and mid-career talent can find it difficult to break through. We will support each Scholar to publish at least one policy paper during their 12-month tenure, and invite them to contribute to our ongoing research programmes.
  • Help translate academic analysis into clear and useable policy ideas: academics have few incentives to think about the policy implications of their work. ‘Impact’ is normally understood as something measured by numbers of citations. Even with a wider definition of impact playing a part in the way that departments are evaluated in the Research Excellence Framework, policy engagement is clearly a far lower priority for scholars. We’ll help change that, connecting the academic to the real world.

By doing this, we hope to identify new thinking and findings from the cutting edge of academia and bring it to bear against the great policy challenges of the coming years. Reform Scholars, the rising stars from a new generation of experts, will engage our networks, attend our events, contribute to our thinking, and write, with our support, impactful policy papers that are designed to attract attention in Westminster and Whitehall. Along the way they will acquire new skills and contacts, and the intellectual and practical worlds will be drawn closer together as a result.

2022-23 is just the first year for this programme, and we couldn’t be more excited about the organisations we are partnering with. Don’t hesitate to get in touch if you’d like to join us or learn more: