Work in progress

Meet the team experimenting with creative approaches to Wellcome’s policy work

We think creativity and experimentation in policy work can generate new insights and influence decision-makers. Martin Smith, Head of Policy Lab at Wellcome, shares our approach.

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Martin Smith

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Meet the team experimenting with creative approaches to Wellcome’s policy work
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Science is critical to solve the urgent health challenges facing everyone. But science alone is not enough. Decisions made by policymakers around the world influence how much progress we can make. Our team tries to shape these decisions. We identify and analyse policy issues that affect urgent health challenges and develop recommendations for change.

We’ll often use familiar tools to do this, such as roundtables, workshops and reports, to develop proposals through analysis and engagement with key people. These are tried and tested ways of supporting policy change.

But what if we built our policy thinking through a game rather than a group discussion? What if the final product was a performance rather than a digital document like a PDF? How might that change our insights and our impact?

We want to be more creative in both the policy processes we use and the products we create. By trialling new methods and formats we can produce different kinds of insights and proposals, and engage decision makers in different ways.

That’s why Wellcome recently created a new Policy Lab within our policy team.

We want to drive greater creativity and impact in our policy work to help Wellcome deliver its mission across mental health, infectious disease, climate and health and discovery research.

We want to use our independence to experiment.

Experimenting with policy development  

We’ve tried some new approaches already, and others are experimenting too. In 2019, we explored what a post-Brexit settlement for research could look like for the UK and EU. But rather than just asking experts what they thought should be part of a UK-EU deal for science, we asked them to role play it through a ‘simulated negotiation’.

Working with Bruegel, a leading Brussels-based thinktank, we brought policymakers and experts from across the EU and the UK together into two teams and tasked them with thrashing out a deal. The process mimicked a formal negotiation – and resulted in just as many twists and turns.

This stretched us and partners to think differently about identifying solutions to complex policy problems. And it gave us completely different insights into the dynamics of the situation – in far greater detail than a more traditional focus group or expert roundtable would have.

Being willing to experiment allowed us to learn valuable lessons about how to bring in different perspectives, which in turn improved our arguments and increased our impact. It also attracted different audiences for our work. We went into it not knowing whether it would work, but we wanted to try. That’s the spirit of our new Policy Lab.

Welcome to Policy Lab! 

Just as Wellcome’s four research programmes continue to foster amazing advances in scientific understanding, Policy Lab will trial and learn from different approaches, and encourage further creativity in the way policy is developed.

To kickstart Policy Lab, we’re launching a global search for partners to trial imaginative, experimental and ambitious tools or approaches that push the boundaries of how policy is usually done.  

The approach could be a creative way to test the consequences of different policy options, an imaginative way to gather data or insights, a new method for involving communities in policymaking, or (ideally!) something else that we haven’t imagined yet.

The most important thing is that the tool or approach helps to generate new insights on a policy issue to support policy development. We want to capture what worked and what didn’t – because if we’re being ambitious enough, not everything will. We’ll use what we learn to inform how we could apply similar approaches to our own policy work in future, and we’ll share what we learn with the wider policy community.

So, if you have an innovative idea that we can test or always wanted to experiment with policy methods but haven’t had the resources, we’d like to hear from you.

Our request for proposals for Policy Lab closed on 4 April 2023.

  • Martin Smith

    Head of Policy Lab


    Martin Smith leads Wellcome's Policy Lab, which aims to bring creativity and innovation to our policy products and processes.