“Many presume that it is the government that makes all the decisions but Parliament – the pinnacle of modern democracy- also makes a number of policy decisions” said David. “Parliamentary debates set the tone for what issues are looked at and it is here that legislation is shaped and amended, and government policy scrutinised”. During his talk, he shared the key conclusions from a recent report into the issue - The Role of Research in the UK Parliament. This was conducted by University College London’s Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy (STEaPP) and the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), particularly by Dr Caroline Kenny and Dr Chris Tyler.
Evidence is useful but very broadly defined
We may feel that published, peer-review research is the gold standard for evidence, but Parliament has a much broader definition of ‘evidence’. As David commented. “It simply wouldn’t be fair for democratic decisions to only be based on academic evidence”. Instead, our message has to compete with all sorts of information sources, including the media, national organisations, charities and constituents – all of which are seen as useful.
Researchers aren’t the best at getting their evidence noticed by Parliament
“When we looked at the main sources of evidence used by committees, it was mainly from not-for-profit organisations, with very little from the higher education sector” said David. Survey results from MPs confirm that charities tend to be more attuned to the legislative process including the timescales for when evidence should be submitted. In contrast, there is much less direct engagement between universities and Parliament: often universities are unaware of the current issues being debated in Parliament whilst, in return, many MPs saw universities as ‘closed shops’ and had little idea of what went on behind their doors.
According to the report, credibility is, reassuringly, one of the key factors MPs look for when using evidence. But the definition of ‘credibility’ varied enormously from whether the evidence came from Oxford or Cambridge University to whether it had been published in a peer-reviewed journal. “There are people in Parliament who don’t know how to appraise research” said David. Statistics were seen as particularly trustworthy – so much so, that an article in Cosmopolitan could be used as credibly as a peer-reviewed paper if it contained a statistic! Clearly, this needs to change and POST particularly is advocating that there is more training for members of Parliament in assessing the value of evidence.
Don’t just expect your work to be found
“Because so many parliamentary workers are non-specialists, they often rely on peer recommendation for sourcing evidence” said David. Your research may be ground breaking, but if it is not on their radar, it won’t be able to influence any debates. “This is where networking can pay dividends” said David – and this includes parliamentary staff, besides MPs. “The clerks of select committees can be very influential in nudging MPs and suggesting the questions they should be looking at and the route the inquiry goes down”. In particular, if you can bring your evidence to the clerk’s or specialist adviser’s attention right at the start of an inquiry, it has real potential to shape the direction of future discussions.
MPs don’t want your personal view – they want the bigger picture
MPs simply haven’t got time to read a stack of individual academic papers and put together the evidence for themselves. Consequently, high-quality reviews of the current body of evidence surrounding an issue are highly sought for. But academics are not encouraged enough to write these, as David said: “Review papers are not seen as original, significant contributions to knowledge but it is a real skill to make a systematic synthesis of evidence. Why can’t a good review paper be worth 4* in the REF (Research Excellence Framework)? We are being encouraged to produce new knowledge, but not make the most of what we produce, UKRI take note!”. This is unlikely to change while academic career progression remains inextricably linked to writing papers, unless we allow great review papers to be 4*: instead, we need to better reward researchers who engage with policy makers and summarise the evidence base (see https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-017-07744-1).
Clearly, the systems that bring evidence to Parliament are far from perfect. But the report concludes with recommendations to make the process easier for both sides, including training in evidence appraisal for MPs and online portals to help academics to engage with policy makers. Nevertheless, all researchers can start to make their work more accessible right now. So before you write that next academic paper, make sure you share your last key finding with the world, whether it’s through a press release from your institute, a short, succinct blog post or even a post on Twitter.
You can read the full report here and join the conversation by following David on Twitter (@d_christianrose)
Article by Caroline Wood