Dr Peter O’Brien
It has been a tumultuous period, by recent standards in modern British history, with the dynamics of domestic policy decisions, governance and global market forces intersecting in ways that have produced profound implications for communities, households, and individuals, up and down the country. The economic challenges facing the UK economy, especially in regions like Yorkshire, were significant prior to COVID, and they have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Thus, giving rise to a renewed search for innovative solutions to complex problems.
The Yorkshire and Humber Policy Engagement and Research Network (Y-PERN) is a new initiative, funded by Research England. Y-PERN, convened by Yorkshire Universities, will enable policymakers to harness and utilise world-class research to better inform and shape crucial decisions around jobs, skills, infrastructure and investment. During an unprecedented cost of living crisis, Y-PERN will help to identify and incubate answers to the fundamental economic, financial and social questions facing our region.
Y-PERN will be led by an integrated team of expert Policy Fellows, based within and across all four sub-regions in Yorkshire, supported by an independent academic advisory group. In Yorkshire, we have one of the largest clusters of universities outside of London. Y-PERN will bring together universities of all different shapes and sizes. Our universities already work collaboratively, and the mission of Yorkshire Universities is to support and strengthen that collaboration.
Universities, Communities and Policymakers
Universities have a critical role to play in working with society to push the frontiers of knowledge and understanding about the world in which we live. Public policy is much more effective when informed by data, evidence, and practical experience of what has worked in the past.
Studies co-designed and conducted in partnership with local actors can also generate the most insightful perspectives. In addition, they ensure that communities have a stake and are an integral part of the policy-making process.
As charities, universities receive significant amounts of public funding, and there is a responsibility to use research for wider benefit or good. Creating closer relationships between researchers and policymakers means that findings are more likely to have wider and more enduring societal impact.
Tackling Key Economic and Societal Challenges
Policymakers face the stark reality of tackling immediate inflationary price rises, especially in food and energy, whilst laying the foundations for long-term, sustainable growth and prosperity. All at a time when public finances are under mounting pressure, and the cost of capital is increasing.
Yorkshire is a fantastic region, full of potential, great assets, a vibrant culture, and it has a world-renowned brand. But like most places, COVID has had a major impact. Social and spatial inequalities have widened. Growth fell dramatically, and large numbers of businesses and places have been unable to bounce back. Health inequalities have become more pronounced, with the poorest and disadvantaged communities impacted the most. As a region, we have suffered from decades of under-funding, and so improving connectivity and mobility between people and places is vital. The UK is competing for new trade and investment, and climate change is impacting heavily upon Yorkshire. The move to a net-zero economy presents a real opportunity, but the shift should be undertaken as part of a fair and just transition.
These big questions require robust analysis and interpretation, and they demand new policy answers and interventions. Universities in Yorkshire, with local, national and global links, can help policymakers find solutions, and attract public and private investment. Academics can also undertake the monitoring and evaluation of policies, examining what works, and how emergent and future approaches can be more effective.
Y-PERN will contribute directly towards the formation of new insights into the key challenges facing different economies and places in Yorkshire – ranging from urban, rural to coastal. One of the key measures of success for Y-PERN will be its ability to build more connections between academics and to lay the ground for new research proposals between universities and policymakers. Thinking about the talent pipeline within our research base is also important – which means Y-PERN will work closely with early-career researchers.
Y-PERN’s Contribution to National Policy Engagement
As a higher education sector, we are moving in the right direction towards encouraging more interaction between universities and policy bodies, through the Research Excellence Framework, Knowledge Exchange Framework and Universities Policy Engagement Network. These mechanisms are now high on the agenda for universities in Yorkshire. However, we need more performance and reward mechanisms to encourage sustained progression, based on an assessment and measurement of the value of policy engagement.
Y-PERN will be part of a wider peer network, and it is important that there is joint learning and the sharing of good practice. There is huge value and potential in learning from projects and experiences outside Yorkshire. Y-PERN will make the case for more inter-sector secondments and placements – to help nurture knowledge exchange and encourage collaboration. Y-PERN could generate real impact if these arrangements were to become more of the norm in Yorkshire.
Finally, Government and its agencies should, over time, recognise the value of Y-PERN and how it can encourage greater policy engagement and co-production between Yorkshire and Whitehall, when it comes to formulating ideas on the big issues facing the country and the region. A clear illustration of devolution in action.