David Christian Rose and Chris Tyler
The UK Parliament performs key democratic functions holding the government to account by scrutinising policy, debating legislation and providing a venue for the public to air their views through elected representatives. Despite the key role of the UK Parliament in shaping government policy, for example in recent times on Brexit and COVID-19 (though many argue Parliament should have a greater role on the latter), scholars of science-policy interfaces have rarely explored how evidence is sourced and used in legislatures.
A number of recent projects, including our Evidence & Policy article, ‘Improving the use of evidence in legislatures: the case of the UK Parliament’, are exploring how evidence is sourced and used in the UK Parliament and what academics can do to improve engagement with policy makers. Our study, a collaboration between the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) and University College London, made the most of rare privileged access inside Parliament where we observed how Select Committees and Public Bill Committees sourced and used evidence, as well as carried out surveys and interviews with 157 people in Parliament (Members of Parliament, their staff, Houses of Parliament staff [e.g. Library staff], Members of the House of Lords).
Although academic research evidence was widely considered to be useful in their work, parliamentarians and their staff raised several points about it sometimes being hard to access, difficult to understand or not submitted to suit tight parliamentary timescales. Based on our research, there are several key factors determining whether a piece of evidence is used or not:
- Evidence should be presented in a timely manner, ensuring that evidence submissions are made on time when requested by parliamentary committees.
- Evidence should be presented so that it is easy-to-understand, without unnecessary scientific jargon, and preferably short. Parliamentarians particularly liked statistics as they were deemed to be objective (though this is, of course, not always the case).
- Systematically review evidence where possible and present a summary of a body of work, rather than giving the results of a single paper.
- Ensure whenever possible open access so that parliamentarians and their staff can read it.
- Credibility, which can be built by academics taking the time to build relationships with parliamentarians and making sure that they do not give the impression that they ‘have an axe to grind’.
- Relevant to the policy or question being discussed by parliamentarians.
The higher education community can certainly improve how it engages with the UK Parliament, but note that there are several institutional constraints that restrict the ability of individual academics to do optimal engagement. Major barriers include the ‘publish or perish’ model of career progression, which still widely favours publications over impact, lack of institutional support for the development of key communication skills for academics, and the lack of time to gain the awareness needed to spot opportunities to engage.
Our research has led to the strengthening of a number of activities to improve the timeliness and quality of academic engagement with the UK Parliament. For example, it has influenced the work of POST’s Social Science Section, which among other things works with parliamentarians and staff to improve the sourcing and appraisal of evidence through training. It has also influenced the new Head of POST’s formation and the activities of the Knowledge Exchange Unit which works with academics to build the skills and networks needed for successful parliamentary engagement. In our article, we further recommend that academic institutions, as well as funders, provide the foundations to support effective academic engagement with Parliament – including further supporting policy fellowship schemes, valuing policy impact in promotion decisions, enabling policy support staff to be funded on research grants, and making time available for academics to develop the communication skills needed to engage well, such as writing policy briefs and summaries of evidence.
You can read the original research in Evidence & Policy:
Rose, D.C. Kenny, C. Hobbs, A. and Tyler, C. (2020). Improving the use of evidence in legislatures: the case of the UK Parliament. Evidence & Policy, DOI: 10.1332/174426420X15828100394351. [Open Access]
David Christian Rose is Associate Professor of Agricultural Innovation and Extension at the University of Reading, UK.
Chris Tyler is Director of Research and Policy in University College London’s Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy (UCL STEaPP).
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