The Importance of Academic and Civil Society Engagement

27 Apr 2023

The events of the past few years have been tumultuous. With the intertwined climate, energy and cost of living crises, it’s more important than ever for academic and third sector organisations to work together. By ensuring that all sectors of society are understood and represented in research, we can achieve a just transition to net zero that works for everyone.

The third sector encompasses organisations like charities, think tanks, trade associations and others that raise funds to invest in social or environmental causes. Their main objective is not to generate profit, but to bring about positive change for the groups they represent. The term is interchangeable with ‘civil society’ as these groups advocate for the will of citizens and are independent from both government and business.

The benefits of cross-sector engagement

The importance of academic and civil society engagement cannot be understated, particularly in the context of a just transition. For third sector organisations, the benefit of engaging with academia is access to cutting-edge research. There can be bias, misinformation and inadequate reporting of climate and energy issues, particularly for highly technical subjects, so having access to academics can be useful to factcheck and remain objective. Underpinning campaigns with science also helps to strengthen key messages and make them more impactful.

Simultaneously, academics benefit from this engagement by gaining access to new perspectives. Net zero can only be fair and achievable if it considers how the transition will be utilised, perceived and impact all sectors of society. Having good relationships with civil society organisations, who represent diverse groups, ensures exposure to new perspectives so that research accurately translates to the real world.

A workshop for knowledge exchange

Earlier this month, UKERC held an online workshop with a diverse cohort of civil society groups active in the climate and energy space. The event was chaired by UKERC Co-Director Jason Chilvers and attendees included Association for Decentralised Energy (ADE), Centre for Sustainable Energy (CSE), Climate Outreach, E3G, Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU), Energy Saving Trust, Energy UK, Green Alliance, Greenpeace, Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), National Energy Action (NEA), Regulatory Assistance Project (RAP) and WWF.

The workshop began with a discussion around how best to engage. Attendees shared their experiences of engaging with academia to identify the challenges and opportunities. Some key themes that emerged include:


  • It’s difficult to find the right academic to engage with
  • Engagement must be built in from the start of a project
  • Academic contracting and research timeframes are slower than the rapid responses needed on the frontlines of key issues
  • Budget constraints prevent civil society organisations from engaging
  • Engagement must focus on research findings and their implications, rather than methods


  • Stakeholders are more likely to listen to evidence backed by an academic source
  • Clearly defined, topic-specific roundtables, that bring academics and non-academics together, are an excellent way to engage
  • Civil society can help researchers to communicate their findings in a more effective, accessible way

The main takeaway was that investing in long-term relationships is very fruitful. As attendees put it:

“We really like working with academics. They’re super engaged and passionate about the topics they research and have a level of technical knowledge that advances our advocacy and pushes our projects forward.” – Leanne Atkinson, Policy Advisor at WWF

“Some of the most positive interactions I’ve had with academia are when we engage at the research inception point, to help give the policy and political context that the research will be launching into.” – Stuart Dossett, Senior Policy Advisor at Green Alliance

This discussion was followed by three mini ‘knowledge exchange’ sessions on topics of interest. The point was to establish a two-way dialogue around these subjects, sharing our expertise with each other, as both academic and civil society organisations have deep knowledge of climate and energy issues. Antonios Katris led a session on heat decarbonisation, Keith Bell led one on power sector reform and Jason led one on societal engagement with climate and energy.

Feedback from attendees has been overwhelmingly positive. We are already working on plans to host more events of this nature, specifically longer knowledge exchange workshops on topics relevant to our third sector partners. We hope that this will strengthen both our research outcomes and their activities.

Thanks again to everyone who attended the workshop and we look forward to working together more closely in the future.