So what’s humanities got to do with policy?

Louie Fooks looks at how policy engagement can benefit humanities researchers the university and wider society – and introduces a new guide to support researchers to get involved

Researchers and academics across the Humanities Division are actively engaged in policy work. Achieving policy impact is increasingly important in research funding and assessment and many researchers find it an exciting way to enrich and expand their work.

While some may assume humanities have less to offer policy than – for instance – science, technology and data-driven subjects, humanities researchers find their perspectives are much sought-after by policy makers. The disciplines can offer insights into ethical debates, bring a human perspective to tech development and data interpretation, and provide compelling narratives to illustrate issues.

Researchers in the Division are approaching policy engagement in a variety of ways. Some have established strong partnerships with policy makers and are actively influencing their agendas. Others respond opportunistically to requests to share their research or contribute expertise at a particular moment in the policy process. Many more share research beyond academia through knowledge exchange or public engagement, which may be the first step to policy work.

Now a new guide offers to support to researchers in exploring policy engagement, Policy and Humanities, sets out some of the benefits of policy engagement; gives basic advice on how to go about it; and points the way to further resources and support. It was developed after conversation with many researchers engaged in policy and includes case studies and examples of their work – from dipping a toe in the water with knowledge exchange to full-blown advocacy for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

For Katrin Kohl, Professor of German Literature and Principal Investigator on the ‘Creative Multilingualism’ project, awareness of the deepening UK languages crisis prompted her to first pursue policy work. Talking to language teachers Kohl learnt that difficult GCSE and A level papers, harsh marking, and anomalies in grading were driving students out of the subject. She therefore focused on pushing language teaching up the political agenda to create an environment where modern foreign languages could flourish in schools and universities.

Initial engagement with the exam regulator Ofqual did not achieve change as its’ objective was to keep grades stable over time. Kohl subsequently analysed exam papers and Ofqual’s policy documentation to demonstrate the issues with grading, built relationships with the Chief Regulator and Schools Minister, and presented to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages. It is not yet clear whether this will bring change to the teaching and assessment of languages, but by building her evidence base and developing relationships with policy makers, Kohl has effectively positioned herself to influence policy in future.

Examples of policy engagement in the Humanities Division include (but are not limited to):

  • Emeritus Professor, John Broome has contributed a philosophical perspective to the climate change debate and was one of two philosophers on the 800-strong panel of authors of the International Panel on Climate Change’s 2014 report, which was the basis for the Paris Agreement in 2015.
  • Professor Helen Small’s research into the meanings and value ascribed to old age has helped frame the debate about how we respond to the implications of an ageing society.
  • Dr Jeremy Howick’s application of philosophical approaches to health science has helped clarify what counts as high-quality evidence in evidence-based medicine.
  • Dr Joshua Hordern has worked with the Royal College of Physicians to identify the skills, values and attributes essential to modern medical professional practice, and with Oxford University Hospitals, NHS Foundation Trust to embed these in clinical training.
  • Dr Sally Frampton and colleagues are developing medical humanities content for Oxford’s undergraduate medical curriculum with a view to influencing the teaching of medical humanities more widely.
  • Professor Elleke Boehmer's research into early Indian migration has improved the evidence base for policy makers interested in the impact of immigration in the UK.

To download Policy and Humanities click here. For further support on policy engagement, contact William Pryor, Director of the Oxford Policy Engagement Network at

national trust archives