Adding relevance to academic business research: Lessons from policy makers

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By Dr Isla Kapasi and Dr Nick Williams

The Centre for Enterprise and Entrepreneurship Studies at the University of Leeds, in partnership with Ideas in Practice and ISBE, hosted a one-day event in Leeds on 13th September 2017 to examine the relevance and value of business research across three different communities of interest: academia, business and policy. The day drew a wide range of academics from across the UK as well as representatives of the private sector and government. A key feature of the day’s discussions was how business and entrepreneurship research can better inform, and be informed by, government policy.

A central aspect of the day was the view that in order to achieve impact through research, the ‘customer’ needs to be considered. Given the prevailing pressures of academic research, often the ‘customer’ is defined as other academics who are communicated with through journal articles. Yet many of the discussants on the day argued for the need to move beyond this narrow focus to ensure that the ‘customer’ is viewed more broadly, specifically to ensure that research has policy relevance.

A key element of this is the need for entrepreneurship researchers to reach out to relevant government departments. While there is no revolving door between academics and policy makers the participants were unanimous that more effort needed to be placed on gaining the views of government, not necessarily to directly lead research questions but to inform the questions that are being asked.

Clearly if a narrow view of the customer is applied (i.e. publication in academic journals) then the potential impact of any research project will be lessened. Indeed, as one of the participants Joe Clease, Head of Enterprise Analysis at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, stated: “There is a need for academics to reach out more to government. If you are doing the research first and looking for the customer at the end of the project then you are unlikely to have as much impact as you could. To have an impact it must have an application”.

Dr Tony Moody, also currently at BEIS, explained how there was a huge opportunity for research evidence to inform policy and practice and contribute to more rapid economic growth. However, he also highlighted that there were major challenges between the information government was seeking and a stock take of the current level of insight typically provided by academia. Government has stewardship of the overall economic ‘ecosystem’, and already makes a lot of non-firm specific intervention, such as through regulation and taxation, to ‘free the market’ and ‘level the playing field’ for all businesses. However, for government to invest wisely in targeted policies to support specific SMEs to grow, it needs to understand not only the added economic benefits that should accrue within any supported firms, but also the impacts on the wider economy, including and adverse impact amongst non-supported firms.

Tony considered that knowing ex ante these additionality, displacement and substitution effects is demanding and characterised the current level of academic knowledge as being impaired by having too many studies that were limited in size and scale, having adverse selection effects, self-reported outcomes or only short-run outcomes; all of which contribute to low assurance of replicability, and contributed little to solving questions of design, delivery and operation. His talk ended with a yet additional category of ‘more environmental’ challenges to providing what Government needed, including the devolution agenda, weakness in the coverage and quality of business data, and the very episodic and capricious nature of rapid business growth itself. Despite these considerable hurdles, Tony urged us to be optimists, because the importance of finding solutions here is simply too vital to our collective future prosperity and well-being as a nation to ever be over-daunted.

The participants also discussed the importance of not only reaching but appreciating what government priorities are. The discussions revolved around the immediate priorities for government which were found to be: 1) better understanding the motivations of SME owners/managers and the constraints they face, and whether government has a role in incentivising different behaviours (for example by encouraging more productive growth); 2) examining the rise of self-employment to understand whether it is a reaction to a lack of flexible working opportunities and/or economic downturn; 3) how institutional incentives can work to inform government initiatives such as the Industrial Strategy; and 4) how firms network and share knowledge especially with regards to the exploitation of new technologies and how entrepreneurial ecosystems can be enhanced in more economically lagging regions.

While these priorities are not exhaustive they provide some direction in thinking about how research can better inform policy. What was also evident from the day, however, was that government priorities constantly shift and so academics need to maintain contacts with government so that impact can be guaranteed.

As impact rises up the academic agenda such discussions will be ongoing, and the one day event represented a starting point for reinvigorating academic and policy discourse. The participants in the workshop expressed their commitment to ensuring that this discourse continues and as such there will be much to follow up on as relationships and research agendas are (re)developed.
If you would like to host an event or workshop with ISBE’s support, please contact Rob Edwards, Head of Marketing. 

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