Expertise welcome in policy making but gaps between what academics are giving and what parliament wants

Date: 8th April 2020

Experts in academic fields looking to share their research with policy makers are not givinglondoncloudy parliament information in a way that is helpful.

In a new study, the most in-depth research of its kind, the team from University College, London, POST, UK Parliament and the University of Reading investigated how research evidence is used in the UK Parliament.

The team found that UK law makers are keen to use research evidence in policy making but academic research suffers from low visibility in a busy information landscape and is often overly specialised for a policy audience.

The paper, published in Evidence & Policy also found that some select committees were more likely to use research evidence if it had been submitted formally through as an evidence submission, and that low levels of proactive engagement from the Higher Education sector meant that academics weren't having as influential impact on Parliament as charities.

Dr Chris Tyler, Director of Research and Policy in University College London's Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy (UCL STEaPP) said:

"Academia is crucial in helping the UK's parliament have the best and most up to date evidence possible to make decisions. However, our study has found that there is a significant gap between what law makers are looking for and what academia is providing."

MPs and Lords, and their staff and officials who took part in the research study said that they welcome academic research to help support their work but warn that it can be difficult to obtain and understand, is often overly specialised for a policy audience, and is often out of step with the timing of parliamentary decision-making processes, such as select committee inquiries.

The authors suggest that deeper engagement between the higher education sector and parliaments could enhance each other's ability to address key social and economic challenges, but that achieving this would require changes to incentive and support structures in academia, such as promotion criteria and editorial and comms support.

Dr David Rose, co-author of the paper from the University of Reading said:

"Parliamentarians have certainly not had enough of experts and do want to use research evidence to support their work, but it must be credible, easy-to-understand, accessible, and timely.

"This is certainly true in the current situation as government and parliament has had to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic. The familiar sight of experts in health and science flanking a cabinet member in the daily 10 Downing Street press briefings is a powerful reminder of the way that academia is informing policy.

"However, policy makers that we spoke to said that the Higher Education Sector in particular is often failing to provide evidence that meets expectations except on credibility. We also note with some interest that parliamentarians and staff place a high bar on evidence that has been submitted formally, especially when it comes to Select Committees.

"Universities and academics that are not regularly engaging with calls for written evidence are running the risk of not having their work included in policy discussions - which crucially deprives law makers of the best available evidence to hold government to account."

The study was supported by POST, UK Parliament, which acts as a bridge between research and evidence to ensure that the best available research evidence is brought to bear on the legislative process and scrutiny of Government​.

Dr Grant Hill-Cawthorne, Head of POST said: "The findings of this research has helped shape POST's ongoing strategy. POST now has a dedicated Knowledge Exchange Unit to broker connections between academics and parliamentary staff, and train academics on how to engage effectively with Parliament."

Full citation: Rose, D., Kenny, C., Hobbs, A. and Tyler, C. (2020) Improving the use of evidence in legislatures: the case of the UK Parliament, Evidence & Policy,, 1-20, DOI: 10.1332/174426420X15828100394351

Funding

The study was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. It was part of a larger knowledge exchange project, in partnership with University College London (UCL), and with the support of ESRC, to establish a social science section in POST to embed social science across POST's work and understand the ways in which research is used in Parliament to enhance knowledge and practice about effective knowledge exchange.

In October 2019, POST secured funding from the ESRC for a further phase of the Social Science Section (2019-2022). The funding is to enable POST to strengthen capacity across Parliament in research use and appraisal, expand the work of its Knowledge Exchange Unit (KEU) to support UK Parliament to broker relationships with a more diverse group of academic and other research stakeholders, and to facilitate more opportunities for UK Parliament, UK Higher Education Institutes and research funders to work together in more systematic and collaborative ways.

The project is a partnership with UCL and UPEN (Universities Policy Engagement Network) - a collaboration of over 40 universities across the UK who are working to provide a more coordinated, efficient, and enhanced offer across universities to those working in policy.

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