Case-study: Harnessing Yorkshire-based academic expertise for strategic impact

Applied Institute for Research in Economics

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In March 2020, as the Covid pandemic swept across the United Kingdom, local authorities were given just six months by the UK Government to produce and submit precise economic recovery plans for their region. 

Officers from West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA) turned to their contacts at the University of Leeds, Professors Gary Dymski and Andrew Brown, to see whether there might be academic support available to help devise a recovery strategy for the region.

The range of information that would be needed was huge, and that time was tight. With the support of Yorkshire Universities (YU), a network that links the region’s 12 university Vice-Chancellors, a plan was devised to involve all the West Yorkshire universities in a new “place-based economic recovery network” – or PERN for short.

The idea was to link up academic personnel to provide verifiable and well-considered information about specific issues the council was facing. Professor Brown recalls: “We wanted everyone to be on an equal footing, and we knew it was vital that the network should have academic independence, so we organised a steering group with one senior academic from every university.”  

Map showing North, East, South and West Yorkshire next to a birds-eye view of Leeds city centre, with the text "far reaching and diverse, reflecting distinct institutions, places, communities and economies - connected by shared priorities."


Workshops on each sector

Working with the West Yorkshire Economic Recovery Board, the new PERN multi-university steering group devised a series of day-long briefing sessions for Combined Authority officers that would cover four topics: the future role of towns and cities; clean and green recovery; resilient supply chains; and innovation-led recovery. And most importantly, they had to be in straightforward terms with guidance that non-academics could follow.

In less than six weeks, these workshops were underway. Each one was delivered by academics from PERN, on a relevant local issue requested by the Recovery Board. They provided rapid and accessible policy advice, set out possible next steps, and provided an opportunity for policy officers to ask follow-up questions.

These were very successful in demonstrating to local and regional government the benefit of consulting local academics, who could articulate relevant knowledge and respond quickly to urgent issues. As Professor Brown says: “Gone was the idea that we were a set of academics in ivory towers, gazing at our navels! Instead, it was evident that here was a set of serious researchers who knew the local area well, and that time talking to us on strategy was well spent.”

A direct result was that the WYCA was able to incorporate the latest evidence into its plan to the Government, on time and on budget. The results of the venture fuelled interest from a range of local and regional partners, who began to enquire whether this arrangement could be made permanent.

New activities

In 2021, Professors Brown and Dymski, again in collaboration with YU, applied to the Research England-funded Capabilities and Academic Policy Engagement Fund (CAPE) project, managed by University College London, for a grant to employ a Regional Policy Fellow, who would act as a bridge between Combined and Local authorities and research institutions. Dr Richard Whittle was appointed to the post, on secondment to YU, and he was invited to join core committees, at Combined and Local Authority levels, to devise and oversee new activities. West Yorkshire universities also funded a core programme budget for Richard to deliver activities.

Professor Dymski explains: “Although the Policy Fellow is an academic, the person has the right language and skills to be closely involved as a trusted insider to our civic partners, and to find out where academic research can be most useful.” This development led to several new activities in connection with the WYCA, which in 2021 elected Mayor Tracey Brabin, who was keen to continue the relationship. These activities have included a report on how the pandemic is affecting towns and cities; and work on reducing violence against women and girls across Yorkshire.

Expanding the network

Up to this point, PERN had been funded by small pots of money from the constituent universities, in addition to the CAPE-funded Policy Fellow. The success of PERN allowed the leadership to take it to the next level. Using the pilot work in West Yorkshire that had been carried out as evidence, the team, in partnership with YU, won a £3.9million grant for a three-year period from 2022-2025, from the Research England Development (RED) Fund, for the network  - now known as the Yorkshire Policy Engagement and Research Network, or Y-PERN – to expand its scope to cover the whole of the Yorkshire and the Humber region (involving 15 Local Authorities and 2 Mayoral Combined Authorities) to work together on levelling-up projects. A Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between YU and Yorkshire and Humber Councils – acting as the strategic body for local and devolved government in Yorkshire and the Humber – underpins Y-PERN.

The University of Leeds is heading the strategic management of the delivery of funded activities in Y-PERN on behalf of the partner universities and YU itself.

It’s therefore an exciting stage in the development of this network, which seeks to galvanise a significant change for policymakers, helping them access a much greater breadth and coverage of academic research expertise in a strategic and well-organised way.

Getting academics involved

The RED financing has enabled an expansion of the Policy Fellows team, from one to nine, each tasked with increasing academic policy engagement and research to support the region’s civic leadership. And there’s a corresponding need for more academics to get involved in the Y-PERN programme.

Y-PERN is coming at exactly the right time, say Professors Dymski and Brown, as the traditional landscape of university priorities shifts to focus on impact in the wider world. Institutions are encouraging fuller participation in the sphere of policy influence, and this fits the bill.

They are particularly keen to involve local University of Leeds academics from across all disciplines and career levels into this programme, where they can use their expertise to work closely with policymakers and have the chance to influence strategic direction.

Professor Gary Dymski says: “Why do people want to go into academia? Generally because they want to change the world and are interested in doing something good that has an impact. Projects like this aren’t a distraction; they allow our brightest people to retain that idealism, and harness that wish to serve.”


For more information, please contact Y-PERN Senior Programme Manager, Kayleigh Renberg-Fawcett


This case study was funded by the University of Leeds’s Horizons Institute, which provides a shared platform for tackling global challenges. The Horizons Institute supported the PERN/Y-PERN network from January 2022 to May 2023 as part of its ‘Partnerships for Societal Impact’ pillar. Find out more.

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