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UCL Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy


Applied in Focus. Global in Reach


Innovative interdepartmental collaborations are needed to foster better science policy and diplomacy interfaces and enable all the SDGs

By j.c.mauduit, on 8 December 2020

By Dr Luis Lacerda, Research Associate in Paediatric Neuroimaging at UCL Institute of Child Health & Dr Jean-Christophe Mauduit, Lecturer in Science Diplomacy, UCL Department of Science Technology Engineering and Public Policy

As a global university, UCL is leading the way in exploring how universities can contribute to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as it recently demonstrated in its two-week virtual conference organised by UCL Grand Challenges and the Global Engagement Office. Helping realise the SDGs will benefit from the university’s most relevant expertise on each particular goal and enhance translational research, but will also enable more cross-disciplinary research within our diverse community, with the aim to spark collaborations ‘beyond boundaries’.

Programs like the Capabilities in Academic-Policy Engagement spearheaded by UCL Public Policy or like the Policy Impact Unit of UCL STEaPP are essential in helping researchers better understand the policy landscape, develop the necessary skills to engage with it more effectively, and work hand in hand with policymakers to develop more evidence-informed public policies based on their research. However, policy impact is not necessarily topic-specific. Indeed, there are many general science policy and diplomacy interfaces that are cross-cutting and relevant to all the SDGs, and they also deserve our attention. There are also many UCL researchers who are willing to engage and develop these interfaces beyond their particular research area.

As a postdoctoral researcher, Luis is currently working at the UCL Institute of Child Health on novel neuroimaging techniques. To complement his research beyond UCL, Luis was also president of the Portuguese Association of Researchers and Students in the UK (PARSUK), a driving force in establishing a Scientific Advisory Board, the first-ever interface providing scientific advice to a Portuguese Embassy. While many Embassies still do not have appropriate interfaces with the scientific world, such bridges between science and diplomacy have significant implications, not only on how countries can better harness science for their own development and achievement of the SDGs, but to reinforce scientific advice on pressing international policy issues.

This new science diplomacy interface created by PARSUK now places further demands on the policy side to maximise the salience, relevance and legitimacy of science advice and how to best enhance scientific collaborations between Portugal and the UK. Since Jean-Christophe, a lecturer at STEaPP, is carrying out research on science diplomacy and is interested in better understanding its processes and implementation, building a transdisciplinary, ‘beyond boundaries’ collaboration felt natural and mutually reinforcing.

While internal pathways to enable such collaborations can be lacking in practice, it is very encouraging that some UCL schemes exist, which could be further expanded. One such scheme is UCL Innovation & Enterprise’s Knowledge Exchange and Innovation Fund (KEIF). Thanks to their generous funding, we are now piloting an innovative project which will hopefully help showcase the broader policy engagement of UCL early-career researchers at these interfaces. We hope that such a model can be scaled up, and inspire others across UCL to do the same.

Given that the scope of the KEIF funding scheme is one of knowledge exchange, we will draw on the expertise and experience of both UCL staff and high-level Portuguese policymakers to co-develop the research necessary to inform their future policy decisions. Indeed, it is only by asking the right questions that we can get to the right answers which will help guide the development of the Scientific Advisory Board, enhance its impact while at the same time exploring alternative interfaces and policy pathways. Although this project is focused on Portugal and its Embassy in London, it will not only bring into the discussion representatives from various countries to exchange on best practices and current research/policy needs, but will also publish some of the research outputs so all can benefit.

Finally, we hope that this project can contribute to a UCL-wide discussion on the challenges of robustly developing these general science policy and diplomacy interfaces. We also hope that it will lead to the emergence of more funding schemes that enable students, postdocs, researchers and professional services to engage with a variety of actors beyond UCL in co-designing solutions that provide better bridges between science and policy/diplomacy.

While it is important to see our university as part of the larger societal ecosystem that it needs to interact with, contribute to and co-develop research with, we also need to internally foster more cross-department transdisciplinary ventures and create new opportunities and models for our researchers – and more specifically our students and postdocs – who want to work more broadly at these boundaries. These might very well be the ones that go on to develop these crucial science policy and diplomacy interfaces in their own countries once they leave UCL, and inspire other universities to replicate its model.

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