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Dr Rob Branston and policy engagement

From working with NGOs in the UK to providing information to international news outlets, Rob Branston has substantial experience engaging policymakers.

Rob Branston next to a web of graphics demonstrating his research and engagement activities
Dr Rob Branston has been actively involved in policy engagement

Dr Rob Branston is a Senior Lecturer and Assistant Professor in the School of Management. In recent years, he has worked with influential NGOs to engage policymakers with his research, as well a presenting at APPGs and giving oral evidence to a Parliamentary Committee.

Tell us about your research and expertise

"I am a senior lecturer in business economics in the School of Management, as well as being part of the Tobacco Control Research Group which is based in the Department for Health. I work on the economics of tobacco control, particularly focused on tobacco taxation, tobacco pricing strategies, and the profitability of the tobacco industry."

How is your work relevant to policymakers?

"Tobacco taxation is one of the key levers that policymakers use to protect consumers from the health implications of using tobacco products and, increasingly, nicotine products. Therefore, my research is very policy relevant, because every year the UK reviews its taxation and we have seen over a number of years tobacco taxation going up in the UK, but also in many other countries across the world too.

"Understanding how companies respond to taxation, how consumers respond to higher prices and changes in the market are incredibly important for making sure we have good taxation policy that is both effective at raising money, and protecting public health.

"Over the last six or so months I have spoken at two events at the UK Parliament in order to share my research expertise in this area: first at a manifesto launch event of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Smoking and Health; and then more recently to give oral evidence to the Parliamentary Committee considering the proposed Tobacco and Vapes Bill."

For further information see: Select Committees and APPGs; Think tanks, advocacy groups, business and charities

In what ways have you engaged policy professionals with your research?

"My research is about understanding the role that tobacco taxation can play, and so I have done a lot of work with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) like Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) and Cancer Research UK, as well as pan-European organisations, such as the Smoke Free Partnership, which is working at the EU-level to combat tobacco use.

Also see: International Policy Engagement

"These are all organisations that are campaigning for tighter regulation of tobacco products. What we do know is that taxation is one of the most effective ways of combatting tobacco use, and so these organisations look for an evidence base on which they can make their recommendations and asks of Government. I work with them to help them to understand the economics of the market and what they should be asking for in order to get the impacts they are looking for. Sometimes this involves assisting on policy briefs, pre-budget submissions, partaking in various meetings and providing expert testimony, or explaining the nature and the way that the markets work."

Also see: Communicating research for policy audiences; Policy briefs

What methods do you have for keeping a record of your engagement?

"I have learned to be good at using Pure, the University’s online portal for research. I was first asked to do that as part of all the REF requirements, but it has proved to be a really good way of keeping a record for myself as well. I find it easier to log and store information at the time that it occurs, rather than having to go back through past emails to find the relevant information."

Also see: Planning for and evidencing policy impact

What methods of engagement have been the most useful?

"I always try to say ‘yes’ to opportunities as much as possible. It only takes one initial connection, for instance a colleague recommending you for an event, and then from that, other opportunities can come up. I was initially speaking to ASH thanks to the recommendation of a more senior colleague, and then having said yes to their requests for help a few times, I then got talking to someone from Cancer Research UK and from the Smoke Free Partnership, after which it really snowballed.

"Another important aspect to my policy engagement work has been working with the media to raise the profile of the research I do. This has involved working with the University's media team to field journalist requests for information and comment and, ultimately, going on radio and TV programmes, from the BBC and GB News, to ABC News Australia to talk about my findings and their implications.

"I have also written various articles for The Conversation about my research and its policy relevance. This includes, most recently some short analysis on the 2024 UK Budget. Collectively, my eight articles for the site have notched up over 160,000 reads. I have also appeared on the influential podcast The Bunker."

Also see: Communicating research for policy audiences

What has happened as a result?

"Through my involvement with ASH and Cancer Research UK, there has been a lot of outcomes. Quite a lot of my research has been cited in their policy recommendation documents.

"I also help to write the annual budget submission from ASH to the UK Government each year. That has led to some of the recommendations being adopted by the Smoking and Health APPG, either directly or indirectly, such as where they have taken on board our idea on capping tobacco prices and adopted that as a formal policy under the label of a polluter pays levy.

"Equally, we know the Government has been increasing tobacco tax and that was certainly something we were calling for. Whether that happened directly because of our recommendation or not is unclear, but we have certainly provided evidence and highlighted this as an issue which has been translated through into real decisions the Government has made."

Also see: Government and policy engagement; Parliament and policy engagement; Government consultations and evidence requests

What have you learnt about the process of policy engagement?

"It is always great to have good co-authors and good academic networks around you to start with. They have made my work better and made me more productive so that I could produce more research. But also, those wider contacts have helped me to get involved in policy spaces more often.

"It was through a colleague that I was connected to ASH, opening the door to lots of my other engagement work. I have found impacts on my own by saying yes and offering help where I could, but none of that would have been possible without that colleague introducing me in the first place."

What advice would you give to others?

  1. Say yes as often as you can because you really do not know where an individual opportunity will lead.
  2. The process is rewarding, but it can also be nerve-wracking, such as when I recently gave oral evidence in the UK Parliament around the Tobacco and Vapes Bill. Embrace the nerves, for your contribution can lead to real impact.
  3. Appreciate the small contributions, as well as the large ones. Some of my most rewarding and satisfying work has been on the annual budget submissions or in seeing my work cited or quoted in Parliament.
‘Embrace the nerves, for your contribution can lead to real impact.’
Dr Rob Branston Senior Lecturer, School of Management

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