By Suraj Sridhar and Manasa Sanjay, Chief Research Correspondent and Director
On Monday 30 May 2022, UCL brought to its research factory a brand-new machine – the UCL Policy Lab, a think tank built to bridge the gap between research output and policy action. Led by Director Marc Stears, previously the director of the Sydney Policy Lab at the University of Sydney, it partners UCL’s Departments of Economics and Political Science with charities, businesses, and governments.
The North Cloisters gleamed bright against a wet, grey Monday afternoon. From climate change posters to cloth carrying intricate architectural designs, its walls have over the years held a striking selection of displays, but today they were furnished with portraits of everyday citizens photographed around London.
The corridor was soon buzzing; academics, students, journalists, writers, and members of the general public alike had gathered in one audience as Marc Stears, Director of the UCL Policy Lab, took the stage. Former Professor of Political Theory at Oxford, chief speechwriter to the Labour Party, and author of several books, Marc’s work has influenced many spheres of society, but he wished to combine his experience into a single goal – to “connect the extraordinary genius of [UCL’s] departments” with the “genius of our city, country, and world.” He emphasised, indicating toward the portraits on the walls, that these were people who have had “different experiences” to academics, but may nonetheless hold answers to “the profound challenges” that confront society today.
As in speech, so in action – the future members of the Policy Lab we heard from came from all walks of life, symbolising the harmony between NGOs, civil society, and the government that is made possible here.
Chrisann Jarret, a social activist, described her organised campaign to facilitate education for young migrants in the UK. Her case, which reached the Supreme Court, was successful in granting young people from migrant backgrounds who live in the UK domestic fee status for UK universities even if they were not able to pass through the correct bureaucratic machines to obtain it.
James Graham OBE, the playwright behind the dramatic political film “Brexit: The Uncivil War”, was too modest when he described himself as a “complete fraud” amongst the “great political thinkers” in the room. Instead, he is the embodiment of the Policy Lab; an impassioned and insightful member of the public, James lends to academia his remarkable wit.
Paul Johnson CBE, current Director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), outlined the gap in the market that the Policy Lab as an organisation can fill. “We just work with data, I’m afraid,” he joked, referring to the IFS. Underscoring the introduction, he concludes with a call for patience. “Academics in the audience, civil servants don’t want to read your article […] civil servants in the audience, academics don’t read the green papers that spew out of Parliament”, hence a little patience for each other, he advises, can go a long way toward creating a big difference to the world.
As the crowds broke apart to engage in another round of merry intellectual socialising, we made our way to the front of the room, passing pictures of academics, civilians, and NGO representatives reflecting the intersectionality of the Policy Lab along the walls, to catch Marc in a rare moment alone. Sporting a blue button down, he offered us a kind smile as we introduced ourselves. When asked “What role do you see students playing in the launch and future of the Policy Lab?”, he responded “We’re hoping very much that students will be central to what we do”. Echoing the ideas that were handed out to us in the magazine we received as we entered, he excitedly expounded “the focus of the lab is on energy, new ideas, creativity, dynamism, and our student community has that in spades”. Interested students, he added, should reach out in the coming months prior to the commencement of the Lab’s projects in Autumn, and can do so by emailing either the Policy Lab’s official email (found below) or Marc’s email.
As the event came to a close, emphatic thanks were delivered by Marc to everyone who made the launch a successful reality; especially to the catering and AV teams (Professor Carlin did, however, chime in with comedic timing disagreeing about the quality of acoustics). Marc recounted that a central belief he has held in his life is that “big ideas belong everywhere, and they are already happening everywhere. You go into a pub after this or a lecture theatre, or into a church, or into a mosque, or into a synagogue, or you go to the market on a Saturday morning, or you knock on some doors because you’re campaigning, you will find people with the most profound insights into the challenges that confront us”. The purpose of the Lab, he reiterated, is to normalise the idea that everybody has an answer within them, and that these answers become more impactful and can mobilise change when brought together
Ending the evening with a call for collaboration and emphasising the openness of the Lab to imbibing ideas from everyone in the room and beyond to “keep the conversation going”, Marc concluded his remarks. Walking out onto the rain-drenched Main Quad, we contemplated the potential impact of the success of the Lab. Connecting academia, civil service, NGOs and the general public, it could create an echo chamber – one that produces, debates and refines solutions viable across social, political and economic intersections. The prospects seem promising, the room for student involvement manifold, and the impact? Well, we will have to wait and see.