British Academy Conference Scheme 2025-26: Overview of Policy Themes
Public policy themes overview
The British Academy’s public policy programme provides insight and knowledge to help frame and address national policy challenges, mobilising insights from across the SHAPE disciplines and translating them into ideas which can inform and enrich policy. This work is organised into four themes:
- Sustainability for people and planet
- Social and cultural infrastructures
- Digital societies
- Governance, trust and voice
1. Sustainability for people and planet
Championing the role of SHAPE research in the policy responses to sustainable development, challenging the idea that science and technology can solve these challenges alone.
SHAPE plays a critical role in understanding the complex human and social dimensions to environmental and challenges and their solutions. This theme will continue to develop the Academy’s thriving range of projects aimed at championing the role of SHAPE research in the policy responses to sustainable development and achieving a Just Transition while tackling climate change and biodiversity loss.
The theme centres on the new Where We Live Next programme which seeks to explore sustainability through the lens of place and place-based policy. Building on the previous Where We Live Now programme, Where We Live Next aims to examine how visible different places, local people and cultures are to decision makers.
The initial phase of the programme will build the evidence base by exploring SHAPE perspectives on sustainability issues. To this aim, in 2022 the Academy commissioned an environmental policy history and six research projects covering diverse perspectives on place-based approaches to sustainability. The long-term aim of the programme is to establish a set of principles to guide place-based policies to enable an equitable transition towards a more sustainable way of living.
This area of work also includes the SHAPE Sustainability Impact Projects which are designed to bring together researchers and students from the SHAPE disciplines to come up with interdisciplinary solutions to issues of sustainability. The Academy has funded projects at institutions around the UK to work in their community to research sustainability issues and work with stakeholders to pilot evidence-based solutions.
Finally, the British Academy also is exploring the governance mechanisms needed to achieve ‘net zero’ by 2030 through the Shared Understandings of a Sustainable Future project. The project engages with business, national institutions, governments, and civil society to understand what ‘net zero’ means for them. Initial and emerging findings from the project are beginning to highlight that people from across different sectors need support to participate in the processes and decisions that will affect them.
2. Social and Cultural Infrastructure
Engaging with the vibrant debate over the 'levelling up' agenda and a growing body of evidence on the critical role of communities and societal relationships in recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Social and cultural infrastructure refers to the services and structures that support the quality of life of a nation, region, city or local community. It is an area that has been brought to the fore by the British Academy’s work on Cohesive Societies and the COVID Decade evidence review and policy reports. There is a wealth of SHAPE expertise available to support research on different aspects of social and cultural infrastructure and its role across a range of public policy issues.
The core programme aims to explore the importance of social infrastructure for policy making, investigating how social infrastructure policy interventions can contribute to recovery from COVID-19, with investment in social infrastructure positioned as a key driver for building social capital.
The programme centres on a collaborative research project in partnership with Power to Change, the Institute for Community Studies (ICS) and the Bennett Institute at the University of Cambridge. The project will explore international policy interventions that aim to strengthen social infrastructure to draw out learning useful for UK policymakers, alongside peer research into community definitions and understandings of social infrastructure in the UK. The research will involve engagement with international policy stakeholders and regional events in the UK with local communities, civil society organisations and local policymakers. It sits alongside a series of roundtables aimed at exploring the importance of social infrastructure with key government departments including Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport and Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.
The Academy is also drawing on insights from six policy research projects funded as part of the Understanding Communities collaboration with the Nuffield Foundation. Over the next two years, the six projects will engage with communities to improve our understanding of the characteristics that make some communities more vulnerable or resilient than others and inform policy and practice on how communities can improve social wellbeing across the UK. The Academy and Nuffield will be delivering a programme of policy synthesis, translation, and engagement across the duration of the funded projects, to promote understanding and learning between research teams and engage relevant stakeholders in the wider body of evidence produced.
3. Digital societies
Exploring the ways in which digital technologies, tools and practices shape and are shaped by our society, aiming to answer the question what makes for a ‘good digital society’.
This programme relates to the Academy’s previous work on data governance and artificial intelligence and explores the broad set of ways in which digital technologies, tools and practices shape and are shaped by our society. It also builds one of the seven priority policy goals set out in the British Academy’s 2021 Shaping the COVID Decade policy report to ‘prioritise investment in digital infrastructure as a critical public service.’ Meanwhile, the Academy’s collaboration with UCL Public Policy on AI and the Future of Work identified four important areas for consideration for policy, research and business in this space: cultivating ‘good work’ with AI, understanding how AI can create new forms of disenfranchisement, how AI will feature across sectors and scales of business, and how to develop a future skills base.
At the start of 2021, the Academy commissioned a set of work packages that focus specifically on digital poverty in the UK. The projects explore the links between digital poverty and inequality, undertaking studies on topics such as digital poverty in rural life in Northwest England, the relationship between digital exclusion and housing, and how the pandemic has affected families with school-age children living on the edge of digital poverty.
The portfolio of commissioned research on digital poverty will feed in closely to an independent project on Digital Technology and Inequalities, requested by the Government Office for Science in late 2021. The starting point of this piece of work is the recognition that while technology has been crucially important in improving quality of life over time, the distribution of this improvement can and has been uneven due to variations in access to and uptake of technologies. The project will draw on the SHAPE evidence base to focus on the causal links between technological inequality and existing social inequalities and the challenges that existing inequalities pose for access to and confidence using technology.
4. Governance, trust and voice
Exploring how the UK can develop effective multi-level governance structures which encourage participation, engagement, and cooperation to strengthen our capacity to identify and respond to local, national and global issues.
The governance, trust and voice thematic programme builds on the Academy’s previous work on the UK constitution and devolution, the Governing England project, and place-sensitive policymaking in projects such as Where We Live Now. It will explore issues of public trust identified in the Academy’s work on Cohesive Societies and how to bring in the voices of underrepresented groups, including those of children and young people as identified through our Childhood Policy Programme.
How policy-making institutions function at different levels and how people engage with them was also a central part of the Academy’s COVID Decade evidence report. In the Shaping the COVID Decade policy report, the first of seven strategic policy goals for recovery was to ‘build multi-level governance structures based on empowering participation, engagement and cooperation to strengthen the capacity to identify and respond to local needs.’ The COVID Decade evidence review also commented on the declining level of public trust in central government and the challenges this brings for policymaking.
This programme will explore questions of how the UK can develop multi-level governance structures based on empowering participation, engagement, and cooperation to strengthen the capacity to identify and respond to local needs. This work will interact with the evidence from other themes to consider how to equip decision-making institutions to be more resilient and effective in times of crises and in the face of the present and future challenges.
With the issues of the pandemic in mind, the Academy has begun our exploration of this theme by taking on an independent commission from the Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Technology to investigate and provide recommendations on the issue of trust and public engagement with science to address global challenges. The programme of activities will comprise two main workstreams. First, two interrelated research projects will provide a comparative analysis of across case studies of the conditions, factors and scenarios under which scientific claims are seen as legitimate and trustworthy. The second workstream will synthesise insights from across disciplines and wider policy perspectives through a series of focused roundtables and small group discussions within the policy and science communities and across disciplinary boundaries.
International policy themes overview
What is a good city?
- What are and have been the criteria of a good city? Who makes and has made the good city? What are the values embedded in urban policymaking now and in the past? How will or can the transformation of urban spaces in a decarbonised society of the future open up or effect collective action and democratic processes?
- The good city evokes the good life, however, urban citizens often have lived with ill health, pollution, poor living conditions, fear, anxiety, isolation, crime and helplessness, how can urban life maintain and repair human wellbeing and mental health rather than the opposite?
- What positive measures can a city undertake to make things better for different groups of people to live together? What infrastructural – understood well beyond the physical – decisions can be taken to better the wellbeing of citizens?
- Is there a ‘multilateral system’? Can there be an ‘open, liberal world order’ with ‘global rules, norms and standards’? What can a more historical perspective tell us including on how the foundations of international order and multilateralism are shifting and that many armed conflicts are connected to the collapse of empires and the inherent difficulty of establishing new successor states?
- How are the organisations and institutions of global governance related to shifting geopolitical relations and how could these be brought into closer and more stable alignment? What role can there be for transnational governance and regional networks and movements?
- Are there better collective answers to global problems?
- What constitutes a just transition? How and by whom should such transitions be designed and led? How can the most profound social and environmental transformations in human history take place in a just and equitable fashion? How will these transitions be experienced and understood differently across societies and communities? How have such transitions been managed in the past and how have and will they be imagined and represented?
- How can political institutions – nationally, transitionally, regionally and globally - be reframed so as to encourage the adoption of forward-looking public policy? What role may there be for green deals or stimuli to support this transition and the COVID-19 response? How might the global economic system support or hinder this? How can a low carbon world be facilitated by human behaviour rather than attempt to be imposed by technological innovation?
HE & Skills policy themes overview
A Vision for SHAPE research and innovation in 2030
If government ambitions around research are to be realised, new institutions, frameworks and infrastructures will need to be created. It is critical that the SHAPE disciplines play a role in both creating and realising a vision for the research landscape. Contributing to the development of these and learning to excel within the ecosystem they create will be paramount to the future health and success of the disciplines.
The Vision 2030 theme aims to issue a strong voice in research policy over the longer terms under a clear, uniting message for our subjects. The theme brings together evidence from across the higher education and wider research systems to produce timely and insightful interventions to policy debates which effect the health of our disciplines as we move through the decade.
These are broadly considered in three areas:
- The people needed to realise these research ambitions, from graduate skills to research careers
- The practices in which academia operates, including frameworks for assessment, place-based policy, and existing funding structures in higher education
- The principles needed to realise the vision; the allocation of research funding, a move towards Open Access, and the building of an advanced R&D system