Something is stirring in Cambridge with all things public policy…


…but can the societies of Cambridge University open up its discussions to the city and wider society, and can the Cambridge’s societies and communities (city and universities) get together to make their impact greater than the sum of their parts?

I was at a seminar with Cambridge’s Zero Carbon Society this week – minus dragon fairy but blissfully unaware that one of the organisers, Emily Scott, was keeping an eye on the adventures of Puffles. It’s always nice when your Twitterhandle’s reputation precedes you.

Not so long ago, I was with the Wilberforce Society talking about sustainable energy prior to Green Party leader Natalie Bennett’s talk to Cambridge Green Party. This evening, I was at Cambridge Online – with Puffles – for my regular volunteering slot for Net-squared Cambridge as a social media surgeon, helping local people and community groups with all things social media. This time around I had people from Mill Road Bridges and Romsey Action along. What was interesting about the conversation here was how they identified with the problems of Cambridge’s ‘silo mentality’ that I’ve moaned about regularly. There’s lots of good stuff happening in and around Cambridge, but it’s all happening in little bubbles or silos. Where it breaks out – such as with the Cambridge Science Festival, there’s still a very ‘discrete’ or ‘one off’ feel to what’s going on. The engagement and conversation is not continuous. It’s not ’embedded’ into the day-to-day activities of the institutions.

Cambridge Public Policy – a possible game-changer?

For me perhaps, but what it does on my level is that it has the potential to bring conversations that happen in Whitehall all the way up to my home town. Their events are open to anyone – so Cambridge non-university people, feel free to sign up. Apart from the convenience aspect, the potential difference is bringing to bear some of the academic talent that exists within the city to a public policy audience. But that’s easier said than done.

The one big gap I’ve spotted from recent events I’ve been to (including with Cambridge Public Policy) is the lack of familiarity people in general have with the overall public policy making processes. Which makes it a Whitehall issue. Well-financed vested interests are more than familiar with the process – along with who needs to be lobbied and when, depending on what stage of the process a particular policy is at. At what point do you need to lobby the party political types or think tanks? When do you need to identify the policy leads to get invited to the meetings of ‘key stakeholders’ or to get that seat on that project board? If the minister doesn’t ‘play ball’, which friendly parliamentarians can you get to ask parliamentary questions on your behalf? When do you need to send briefing notes to which MPs when a particular piece of legislation is going through Parliament? And at which stages?

“Why did you mention all of the above?”

Because one of the questions that came up at David Christian Rose’s talk with the Cambridge Zero Carbon Society (titled “Translating knowledge about climate change into policy: Lessons from the use of climate science in biodiversity conservation policy in England”) was why ministers didn’t listen to scientists. They ran the risk of identifying the problem with the science until I intervened and said the problem is with the policy-making process. Even the policy-makers have identified this, hence the move towards open policy making. The challenge for scientists in particular is to gain an understanding of the policy-making process and the actors that influence it.

“Why scientists?”

Culturally we have what I consider to be an artificial divide between the sciences and the arts. It’s set in stone when we are still at school: What GCSEs do you want to do? If you want to do a science A-level, do three separate sciences. If not, stick with a combined double award. I was 14 when I had to make that decision. As far as institutionalised academia and any careers mentors were concerned, that was a science career shut off. Crazy when I look back on it.

As a result, there feels like there’s just as much of an ‘Ooooh! Science! Complicated stuff!’ for those who see themselves as non-scientists, just as much as there is an ‘I don’t do politics’ for those that don’t study the humanities or social sciences. Everyone does politics – because everyone is affected by it. (Whether they do ‘party politics’…that’s another matter!)

“But I don’t want my pure science polluted by those lying scuzzball politicians with their dark arts!”

This is actually a genuine area of discussion. For a start, science is not an exact science – to coin a phrase. Science in the sphere of public policy is riddled with uncertainties. You are seldom 100% sure about what the science tells you – especially when you want the science to be 100% sure. Think back to #HorseMeatGate. If you are a secretary of state facing a food scare, the last thing you want is to be told that the science is uncertain, because you are the one that has to face both a hostile press and a hostile Parliament. You want to report to Parliament that the science is 100% spot on and that you’ve taken the best scientific advice from the best brains in the country, if not the world, on how to deal with said problem.

The other thing is that with science, you can do controlled experiments far better than you can in social science and the likes of economics. But when you start relaxing those controls – or in the case of economists, the assumptions – fun and games start happening with the models that you have. In public policy world, this means that there’s a growing expectation that those working in the field will be expected to be ‘multi-disciplinary’ – be able to handle things coming from a range of subject areas. If you are talking about climate change, there’s just as much a need for policy advisers to understand basic engineering as there is basic economics and ecology. Why? The statistics from the Centre for Alternative Technology along with the UK Green Building Council, are striking. If you want to tackle UK carbon emissions, it starts with (but by no means ends at) the home.

“What’s this got to do with silos?”

That recurring question arises again. “To what extent are you prepared to be influenced and challenged by…?” More and more I am picking up news of various gatherings in Cambridge – both inside and outside of Cambridge University – of events that try to tackle the public policy issues of the day. In social media world there is a huge opportunity to take these conversations outside of the academic bubble. Not least with people live-blogging and live-tweeting from such gatherings.

What interests me about all of this is that there is an opportunity for academic communities to go far beyond the principles and theories of what they study and research, and start taking on the applied issues in the real world – to the extent where they can use their expertise to hold policy-makers to account. This makes it much more likely that think-tanks engaging in policy-based evidence-making can be called out where the research and data does not back up their assertions.

Town vs Gown

What’s interesting with Cambridge is the potential impact smashing the town-gown divide could have. There is a noticeable amount of public policy interest from beyond academic circles in the city – much of it gained from many years of campaigning and engagement. What would the impact be if some of those wise owls otherwise outside of academic circles could break into the bubble that is Cambridge University? (There’s also a role here for the likes of Anglia Ruskin University and Cambridge Regional College too). What would the impact be of continuous outreach by Cambridge University Societies to wider city-wide groups such as Transition Cambridge, Cambridge Carbon Footprint and the Cambridge Cycle Campaign?

“Okay Pooffles, how do you make all of this work?”

I still remain of the view that the “Cambridge Live” vision is an achievable one – even though I don’t have nearly the amount of energy, skills and connections on my own to make it work. When I first put that together, it was before I had my mental health crisis – the aftermath of which has left me only able to work part-time. If I had the energy levels of say 10 years ago I’d be out every night cycling to everything that was even vaguely interesting.

But on the good side, various groups, communities and even organisations are approaching critical mass stage in terms of both their size and activities. Mindsets are beginning to change – in particular regarding social and digital media. This makes all things engagement that little bit easier. What I need to work on is getting together some positive case studies, thinking about what good things can be done. Then start doing things that help inspire people to take things and run with them. After all, if Oxford can put together something like @DailyInfoOxford and the Isle of Wight can do OnTheWight, why can’t Cambridge get together and do something similar?

Greater turnout of people at events, and greater online engagement from outside of them. Bringing the City together? I like that.


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