Research, Impact and the UK Parliament

This event took place in the Darwin Building at University College London on the 7th June 2017 and was organised by the Universities programme at UK Parliament Outreach and Engagement Service.  These are my personal notes which may be of interest to any researchers who wish to improve the profile of their work among policymakers.


An Introduction to the UK Parliament

The UK Parliament is made up of The House of Commons; The House of Lords; and The Monarch.  The Monarch’s role is mainly ceremonial and is not a focus for impact activities.  There are typically 650 MPs in The House of Commons.

The Commons is the democratically elected chamber of Parliament.  The party (or parties) who can command the confidence of the House of Commons form the UK government – typically the party with a majority of members.  If no party commands a majority then a a minority government or coalition government may be formed.

The House of Lords used to be largely filled with hereditary peers.  The 1958 and 1999 reforms did away with most of these and most current Lords are life peers.  It is possible to become a Lord through hereditary title; public nomination to the House of Lords Appointments Commission; or (most typically) Prime Ministerial prerogative.  Traditionally the 26 highest ranking bishops and archbishops of the Church of England sit in the Lords.  Life peers can choose to retire but they typically serve for life.  There are 92 places for hereditary peers.  Many peers have an allegiance to a political party, but there are also cross-benchers who retain independence. The House of Lords does not conventionally block bills that were in a government manifesto, and can only delay and request amendments of legislation, not block it.

What does Parliament do?  The main activities are:

  • Making new laws
  • Raising and debating issues
  • Scrutinizing the work of the UK government

Parliament is not the same thing as Government (the party or parties that command the confidence of the commons).  For the development of policy and legislation the focus should be on the Government.  If the focus is on applying pressure or criticising a piece of legislation then Parliament is likely to be a more appropriate place to start.

How does Parliament use academic research?

  • House of Lords/Commons Select Committees (groups of MPs/Lords involved in an inquiry into an area of government activity or spending)
  • Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST)
  • House of Commons Library
  • House of Lords Library
  • Public Bill Committees

How can you contribute to legislation?

  • Respond to consultations (before it goes to parliament, e.g. green & white papers)
  • Make sure the subject specialists at the House of Commons Library knows you and your area of expertise
  • Submit evidence to pre-legislative scrutiny committees and/or Public Bill Committees
  • Brief opposition/backbench MPs and Peers to assist them in legislative debates

You can send 250 word summaries of subject expertise to papers@parliament.uk for the attention of subject specialists.  This means you will be entered onto a register of experts.


Academics and the UK Parliament

The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) supports and advances the use of research evidence in Parliament.  Core activities include:

  • Producing 4 page briefings for MPs and Lords on topics deemed to be of policy relevance. The process includes literature reviews, interviews with stakeholders, etc.
  • Supporting Select Committees and Libraries (providing contacts and bespoke briefings
  • Connecting Parliament with researchers through events, fellowship schemes, etc.
  • Capacity Building through providing training to Parliamentary staff about using research and research methods


There are four POST areas:

  • Biological sciences and health
  • Energy and environment
  • Physical sciences and ICT
  • Social sciences


As part of the social science strand some work has been done on Parliamentary engagement through analysis of REF2014 case studies.  20% of impact case studies (N=1282) referred to engagement with Parliament.  88% of UK universities are engaged with Parliament in this way (from all 36 subject areas).  The universities which engaged the most were UCL, Oxford, Cambridge, KCL, Manchester, Bristol and Edinburgh.  The areas of Parliament that were engaged with most commonly were Select Committees (35%); Individual MPs or peers (28%); legislation (11%); debate (11%); APPGs (10%); libraries (3%); parliamentary questions (3%) and POST (2%).

The most typical form of engagement is through citation or mention (37%).  The next common is to provide evidence (18%).  Other examples include giving evidence, consultation, speaking or presenting, or through direct correspondence.

The POST note process provides a way to engage:

  • Written by postgraduate fellows over a period of three months
  • Topics are approved by the POST board
  • You can propose a POST note, or contribute to notes that are presently being worked on
  • First drafts of POST notes are usually written by non-specialists
  • Finished drafts are sent to all MPs and peers and made available through the Parliamentary website
  • The website shows notes that have been approved for drafting as well as work currently in progress
  • There is a mailing list and a Twitter account (@post_uk)
  • It can also be useful to follow the social media accounts of Select Committees or Library Sections, etc.
  • Fellowships are available through research councils, learned societies and charities
  • Academic fellowships are available for academics at institutions which hold an ESRC or EPSRC Impact Acceleration Account (currently being piloted, deadline 30th June 2017)
  • Fellows are increasingly offered the chance to work directly with a Select Committee or Library Section


Libraries are keen to work with academics but often too busy to seek them out.    The Commons Library is made up of specialists who produce briefing papers and debate packs; the Lords Library comprises generalists and is a smaller team who focus on answering enquiries.

The contact email address for Libraries is: papers@parliament.uk


Engaging with UK Parliamentarians

The first step is to contact your local MP, who can be found on the Parliament website (www.parliament.uk) or by calling the House of Commons Information Office on 020 7219 4272.  Many MPs have a constituency office where they can be contacted.

It may be appropriate to contact other MPs – one approach could be to ask which other MPs might share an interest.

Members of the House of Lords have no constituency, but neither do they have the staff support that MPs have.  Many Lords are busy and have jobs outside of Parliament.  It is important to identify peers who will support your campaign. The email address  contactholmember@parliament.uk can be used to contact any peer.  Don’t bulk send information – if more than six copies are received all are deleted.

Individual parliamentarians are free to evaluate your communication and act in whatever way they feel is appropriate. There is no formal quality assurance process, so finding a sympathetic ear can be useful.  Targeting communication is important; having some sense of the action that you wish Parliamentarians to take helps to structure and strategically focus the communication.

Ways to find out more about Parliamentary interests:

  • All-Party Parliamentary Groups
    • These informal groups function like clubs and have been demonstrated to be a good way for researchers to gain influence
    • APPGs typically focus on a particular issue (‘subject groups’) or country
    • They can operate in wildly different ways because they are not uniform in their organisation or structure and they are self-run
    • There is a register of APPGs on the parliament.uk website
    • It can also be useful to identify Parliamentarians who might be obstructive to your legislative agenda through searching APPGs
    • Granularity can be an issue: ‘health’ is quite a broad category but there can be groups for specific areas of medicine or even specific medical conditions. Find the right group for your particular agenda
    • Ask for a list of contact details for members of the relevant APPG
  • Hansard (records of debate)
    • These can be searched for key words
    • Useful for identifying Parliamentarians
  • Early Day Motions (suggestions for future debates)
  • Select Committees

Another inquiry point could be to identify clerks or co-ordinators and contact them directly.  They are likely to be organised and quick to respond.

If you’re going to contact an MP or peer, how should you present yourself?

  • Be polite
  • Have a clear purpose for contacting them
  • Try to stand out from the hundreds of other emails they have received that day
  • Be clear about the new knowledge that has been produced by your research
  • Communicate broad lines first and drill down into the details
  • Parliamentarians are ‘intelligent non-specialists’ who are used to taking in complex information – there is no need to dumb down research for them but it is good practice to minimise jargon and communicate the main points clearly


What is good Select Committee evidence?

Select Committees:

  • Are intended to hold the government (or relevant governmental department) to account
  • Are independent in terms of their focus
  • Examine expenditure, administration and policy of each Government department
  • Do not investigate individual complaints
  • Are cross-bench and reflect the makeup of the House of Commons – serving ministers are not part of Select Committees


How Select Committees work:

  1. Choose inquiry
  2. Announce Terms of Reference (narrowing areas of focus)
  3. Open the call for evidence (typically open about 6 weeks)
  4. Collect written evidence
  5. Commission research (this is infrequently done, but still happens)
  6. Visits (to relevant stakeholders)
  7. Take oral evidence (these sessions are open to the public and sometimes televised)
  8. Discuss conclusions & recommendations
  9. Draft and agree report
  10. Publish report
  11. Receive a response from the Government, who are obliged to respond to each of the specific recommendations

Recommendations may be accepted in full or in part, or rejected.

Why engage with Select Committees?

  • Evidence based policymaking
  • Publicise research
  • Impact

How should one engage with a Select Committee?

  • Submit written evidence
  • Oral evidence
  • Act as a specialist advisor
  • Highlight relevant research

What is good evidence?

  • Relevant to the inquiry
  • Accessible, not academic – minimise jargon
  • Provides context and assesses the significance of a piece of research
  • Gives clear recommendations to the Committee
  • Avoid political point-scoring since Select Committees are cross-bench
  • Bear in mind the original terms of reference (and possibly use this to structure the report)

One area of focus for Select Committees is to improve the diversity of those who are asked to provide evidence.

The best place to start when thinking about approaching a Select Committee is Twitter – every SC has a Twitter account where requests are made.

Things to think about:

  • How is your research relevant to public policy?
  • Which inquiries could you submit evidence to?
  • How will the REF influence your research?

On the subject of REF:  it is not entirely clear how one might use Parliamentary activity as a way of demonstrating impact.  Keeping records of engagement (e.g. a letter of thanks) is a good idea because this could potentially be used as part of a case study.

Select committees have no role in legislation, though they may be asked to provide scrutiny on bills that are in early stages.

Bill committees also take evidence on a particular subject and related legislation.   Bill committees are run by the Public Bill Office and chosen by party whips.  They are more political and controlled by political parties.




What is Open Access?

I just had to share this video from PhD Comics.  A really neat introduction to the issues surrounding access to scientific literature…

Thoughts on ‘Open’ Policy

The most popular policy initiative in the world of OER is proving to have considerable appeal to a range of stakeholders.  Here’s a concise expression of it, courtesy of David Wiley, Cable Green, and Louis Soares at Center for American Progress.  (The arguments are developed further in Game Changers: Education and Information Technologies.)

We need to help policy leaders understand the affordability and flexibility of the digital world, and how public investments in educational resources, data, research, and science must be openly licensed and shared for the public to get its full return on investment. Finally, all governments—national, state, county, and local—along with educational institutions must adopt a simple public policy: “Publicly funded resources are openly licensed resources.” This means that if public investment helps create an educational resource, then that content is published under an open license… Because we know how to do this, and it is all but free to do so, we have a moral obligation and ethical responsibility to act.

The language is which this policy is couched is quite striking.  Not only is it merely prudential for us to adopt open policies, the authors contend, but it is a matter or moral and ethical obligation.

I’m not in any way trying to impede the incredible progress that the open educational movement is making.  It’s a fundamentally egalitarian position, and appeals to the principles of democracy and transparency in a way that I find welcome.  But it does seem to me that the central claim deserves further investigation.

The basic maxim seems to be sound.  Given that members of the public have already funded research through taxpayer contributions, it is unjust that they should be required to pay again to access the results of research, especially when these additional monies simply go to line the pockets of a publisher who asserts copyright over a journal publication or college textbook.  There’s no good reason to make taxpayers pay twice in order to preserve the profit margins of the publisher when all of the meaningful work is being done by academics who work largely for free.  Taxpayers, it is quite rightly suggested, should not have to pay to access research that they have effectively already paid for once.

By arguing along these lines, proponents of open policy make the issue one of justice.  (Contrast with the form of prudential arguments. Prudential arguments appeal to the interests of the parties involved, while arguments based on an idea of justice typically make no reference to self-interest.)  There is no necessary reason why justice and self-interest should coincide (though they often do).

The idea of justice implicitly appealed to by Green, Wiley and Soares has a certain symmetry to it:  because I am a taxpayer who has funded the production of educational materials I deserve to have access to them.  In return for ‘us’ (the public) funding these materials we require that they be openly licenced in a way that enables ‘us’ (the public’) to access them.

I consider this to be a neat contribution to the present debate about open policy.  However, the situation is not quite as clear as the proposed maxim suggests.

As I see it, the argument relies on the supposition that on the supply side there is a generally homogeneous group (‘the public’) which is correlate to the public domain within which consumption of educational materials takes place.  In practice, of course, this is rarely the case.  The first thing to note is that taxpayer groups tend to be defined by geographical location.  If we follow the justice-logic of the argument we may conclude that, for example,  American taxpayers have a right to access the research that their tax dollars have paid for.  But it’s not so clear that, for example, British taxpayers have a right to access the research that has been funded by American taxpayers.  So when we hear that all publicly funded materials should be publicly available, I find myself wondering ‘which publics?’  There may be good (prudential) reasons for sharing medical research discoveries among a global research community regardless of who has funded the research.  But it’s not so clear that the funders of that research are obligated to so do, regardless of how much of a good thing it would be if they were to.  (This is not the same as saying that they have no obligations.)  Failing to share everything that has been publicly funded on an open licence is not necessarily the same thing as moral failure.

One way around the objection is to subvert or disregard national boundaries (probably easier in principle than practice).  What is effectively implied by the belief that whenever any publicly funded works are produced they should be so done for the benefit of all publics everywhere is the idea of global citizenship.  This might not be a bad way for open policies to develop, but remains largely unrecognised in the current discourse around open policy.  It seems to me quite possible that one could agree with the ‘symmetry’ principle while maintaining that they are not obligated to share with anyone outside their own national context without provoking any kind of self-contradiction.  Similar issues could conceivably arise at a national level in the context of federal/county.

Now it might well be that the germ of trans-nationalism is there within the open education movement as a whole.  (After all, digital technologies are no great respecter of national and international boundaries.)  But it seems to me that it needs to be made absolutely explicit if open policies are to meet the ‘which publics?’ objection.