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The Policy Ask with Molly Morgan Jones: “The UK must keep working with Horizon Europe”

The director of policy at the British Academy on research funding, the strength of UK arts and humanities, and Barack Obama.

By Spotlight

Dr Molly Morgan Jones is director of policy at the British Academy, the UK’s national academy for the humanities and social sciences. She has held this role since 2018 and has led initiatives addressing issues such as the long-term social impacts of the pandemic, the future of the corporation and the state of language learning in the UK. She previously worked in various policy roles across the UK and US, notably at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the US Food and Drug Administration and Rand Europe, a research institute. She holds a doctorate in science and technology policy.

How do you start your working day?

I usually wake up at about 5.30am and go for a run or do some sort of exercise before the rest of the house wakes up. I find running is a helpful way for me to connect things across the range of areas I’m working on. Once the kids wake up, it’s all “go” from there to get everyone ready for school and myself out the door and onto the train into London for work.

What has been your career high?

The work that went into the British Academy’s “The Covid Decade” government-commissioned independent review, which we began in September 2020, was a real highlight. We were able to synthesise an enormous amount of evidence and articulate a clear set of policy goals for building a stronger post-pandemic society. It’s not often your policy work comes together in such an impactful way.

What has been the most challenging point of your career?

Funnily enough, joining the Academy was a challenging moment – I’m the Academy’s first director of policy so there was a real sense of excitement and opportunity when I joined. A great deal of thought and work has gone into developing our policy programmes since then. It’s been so fulfilling to see it all come together.

If you could give your younger self career advice, what would it be? 

Have more confidence in your instincts and don’t let your inner doubts get the better of you. In my role that means striking a balance between having the confidence in being an expert-generalist of sorts, and knowing how to draw on the Academy’s fellows’ deep expertise.

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Which political figure inspires you?

Barack Obama. I grew up in the US and the historical significance of his presidency can’t be overstated – but also his path from a community organiser really resonates with me. His understanding of the value of deep engagement at local levels is something that is reflected in a lot of the Academy’s policy work too – for instance our work on social infrastructure.

[See also: Martha Lane Fox: “Women should be in every place decisions are made”

What policy or fund is the UK government getting right?

The historic investment in research and development (R&D) during the last spending review was the right decision. The research base in the UK requires sustained, long-term funding to achieve advancements in new technologies and medical breakthroughs, as well as to deepen our understanding of collective histories and how society functions, which ultimately benefits everyone.

And what policy should the UK government scrap?

It’s not so much a question of “scrapping” but “not scrapping”: it’s incredibly important that the UK associates with Horizon Europe, the EU’s flagship research funding programme. UK-based research has been extremely successful – the social sciences, humanities and the arts for people and the economy (Shape) disciplines especially – in securing Horizon funding so we have a real strategic advantage in these disciplines.

What upcoming UK policy or law are you most looking forward to? 

I’m looking forward to following the work of the Council for Science and Technology, an important legacy of Professor Sir Patrick Vallance’s tenure as chief scientific adviser. I’m particularly looking forward to seeing how we can mobilise Shape alongside science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) disciplines to achieve the government’s strategic priorities in science and technology. Connecting knowledge across disciplines has been the unifying thread of my own career and there’s so much more we can do to support this here in the UK.

What piece of international government policy could the UK learn from?  

Countries like Germany and Finland have baked into their science systems long-term, seven-to-ten-year research funding settlements. There’s a lot we can learn about the value of providing certainty for the research base. Long-term stability helps retain and attract the brightest minds to the UK and that has a variety of positive spill-over effects.

If you could pass one law this year, what would it be?  

I’d like to see the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, the Office of National Statistics and the Treasury reconsider the framework we use to measure and account for R&D spending across the economy. Currently, we don’t account for the Shape disciplines, consistently, across different departmental frameworks. In an economy which has world-leading strengths in sectors which draw significantly on research and innovation, we seem to be missing an important part of the evidence base.

[See also: James Heath: “The UK has been very slow in decarbonising buildings”]

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