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Politics and policy: achieving research impact through Parliament

By Iain Coleman | Jul 08, 2019
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Of all the ways that research can turn into benefits for the wider world, one of the strongest and potentially furthest-reaching is when it transforms public policy. A new nursing technique adopted in one hospital has an impact on healthcare, but the same technology incorporated into national guidelines has much more. A campaign against unethical behavior by the press can have an impact on public debate, but if it leads to legislation that reforms press regulation, then its impact will be more significant as well as further reaching. And a new mobile communications system might have the potential for all kinds of technological and commercial impact, but if policymakers decide it should be adopted by the emergency services, then that can lead directly to saving lives.

If this sounds like it’s of interest to you, then the report on “The Role of Research in the UK Parliament” by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) is a must-read. The authors have interviewed MPs and their researchers, members of the House of Lords and parliamentary staff about how they engage with research and have analyzed several case studies of how research is used in different parliamentary processes.
The results are striking and, in some cases, surprising.

One thing that runs right through this report is the fundamental importance of credibility. Politicians and staff in parliament are assailed by information and opinions and are under a lot of time pressure to quickly cut through this to find what is relevant. The main heuristic they use is the credibility of the source – at least, as they perceive it. There are various ways to achieve credibility with a given audience, not all of them entirely reputable, but for academics, it’s quite clear that rigor, political independence, and academic esteem are the key markers to emphasize.

Another frequent refrain is the unsuitability of academic publications for the parliamentary audience. It doesn’t come as much surprise to learn that few MPs or parliamentary researchers have the time, inclination or skill set to struggle through page after page of densely written journal articles. The fact that some universities have woken up to this, and are now producing short, accessible policy briefings is welcomed, but it is clear that there is much more scope for plainly written research summaries, preferably augmented with graphics that provide greater immediacy and clarity.

Numbers are particularly valuable in these policy briefings, as the report emphasizes. They should make quantitative statements where possible: these are seen, rightly or wrongly, as more objective and reliable than qualitative information. Ideally, briefings should try to present the key number, that killer statistic that encapsulates the argument. The truth is, most parliamentarians aren’t particularly numerate, and that cuts both ways. It means the use of numbers should be as simple and accessible as possible, with liberal use of charts and graphics. But it also means that, if you can provide a simple, solid number-based argument, this will be particularly valued because few parliamentarians will feel equipped to contradict it.

The effectiveness of numerical argument as a rhetorical bludgeon was firmly established, of course, by Gordon Brown in his heyday as Chancellor of the Exchequer. I have had recourse to it myself, back when I had hair and was a City Councillor in Cambridge, and I can personally attest to its effectiveness. However, it does highlight one of the problematic aspects of this kind of engagement: nobody is interested in nuance or caveats, and the research that politicians do pick up may be used crudely, in ways that the original researchers find objectionable.

To some extent, this goes with the territory. Policy impact is inevitably a political process, and researchers may well find their work being misused, misinterpreted or unfairly dismissed. They may even dislike how their research is used by politicians who they basically agree with. That’s part of life when you get into influencing policy, and researchers venturing into the political arena have to be prepared for a little rough and tumble. The best advice, in my view, is to issue corrections if you feel that is necessary but to try to avoid getting drawn into political fights. Above all, researchers should be wary of being seen as politically partisan. As we saw above, credibility as an academic is a researcher’s fundamental currency, and nothing diminishes that credibility quite as much as being seen to have chosen a side.

One of the common pieces of advice you hear when people talk about having an impact via parliament is to engage with POST itself. It’s surprising, then, that the reach of POST within parliament turns out to be somewhat limited. (And it’s to the credit of POST, who published this report, that this point is not brushed aside). While POST is highly rated by those parliamentarians who make use of it, it turns out that most parliamentarians don’t bother: in this survey, only 21% of MPs and 19% of MPs’ staff reported using it. This is something of a shame, as the short briefings (POST Notes) and other resources POST provides are excellent, and greatly valued by those who read them. On the other hand, the Commons Library is much more widely used (by 78% of MPs and MPs’ staff), and is greatly respected as a source of research information. Researchers would be well advised to engage with the parliamentary libraries as well as with POST, in order to maximize the reach of their research within parliament. This is one of the useful and unexpected outcomes of this report.

The biggest factor in achieving successful parliamentary engagement, however, is also the hardest: aligning the engagement with parliamentary processes. In my experience, many researchers think that providing evidence to a select committee inquiry is good evidence of policy impact, but I’m doubtful that a REF sub-panel will see it that way. Anyone can provide evidence, which will be duly noted and published on the parliament website, but it’s unlikely to make a big difference to the outcome of the inquiry, still less to any change in policy. It’s much better, as this report makes clear, to get in at the start of a select committee inquiry while the questions are still being defined. This can provide a substantial influence on the outcome of the inquiry. Even better is acting as a specialist adviser for a select committee – but this is unlikely to happen without a substantial track record of effective engagement.

There’s a lot of detail in this report about interacting with parliamentary procedures, and it should be read carefully by anyone who wants to work directly with parliament to achieve impact. In reality, though, many researchers will be reluctant to invest the time and effort required to become au fait with this often obscure and arcane parliamentary business. Working through intermediaries can be a good solution to this problem. Many charities and other NGOs have considerable experience of working with parliament and have built up the required savvy. Engaging with these bodies, and working with them to present research results to parliament, can be easier and more effective than trying to go solo. But pick your partners with care. Credibility, as ever, is the most important thing, and that applies to partner organizations every bit as much as researchers.

Clarity, credibility, numbers, and timing. These are the keys to effective engagement with parliament and, with a little luck in traversing the fraught territory of politics, enabling research to make a real difference to public policy.

About Iain Coleman

Dr. Iain Coleman is the Research Engagement Manager at Impact Science. He has previously had an extensive career in UK Higher Education, having been Head of Impact and REF Support at Kingston University London, REF Manager at the Queen Mary University of London, and Science Writer at the University of Edinburgh. His own research background is in astrophysics and space science, having received a Ph.D. in Astrophysics from the University of Glasgow before undertaking postdoctoral research in solar-terrestrial physics at the British Antarctic Survey. However, his work in science writing and impact support has encompassed the full range of academic research, from particle physics and telecommunications to continental philosophy and experimental dance.

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