By Chris Tyler, Danielle Beswick, Sarah Foxen, Marc Geddes, Abbi Hobbs and David Rose
Parliaments are the apex of democratic societies. Elected representatives of the people set laws, scrutinise the work of executives and debate the great issues of the day. Three recent reports focused on knowledge exchange suggest how universities can improve the way that they bring evidence to bear on legislative actors and processes. The authors of those reports distill their expertise into a 12 point plan.
Over recent years, universities have shown increasing focus on parliamentary engagement. We, the authors of this blog, have written three recent publications on the issue of academic engagement with parliament. The first, Evaluating Academic Engagement with UK Legislatures, March 2020, provides a snapshot of the significant diversity of activities that legislatures offer, the incentives and motivations for them, and how to overcome challenges to make knowledge exchange more effective.
The second, Feb 2020, is a briefing from the Houses of Parliament and the devolved legislatures: ‘Knowledge Exchange and Legislatures’. This was produced to support universities and researchers in their development of knowledge exchange strategies and activities. We lay out a comprehensive list of activities that legislatures and researchers participate in and make recommendations for researchers wishing to engage with parliament. This was used to inform the Knowledge Exchange Framework.
The third ‘Improving the use of evidence in legislatures: the case of the UK Parliament, was published in April 2020. Noting that little is known about how research evidence is sourced and used in legislatures, we collected empirical evidence to inform advice on how to mobilise knowledge in legislatures. The wider project also shaped the work of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) in supporting the use of research evidence in Parliament, including enhancing the quality of evidence appraisal.
All three are rigorous contributions to the debate about how universities can improve the way that they bring evidence to bear on legislative actors and processes. But they all came up with slightly different findings. We have brought them together in the form of a 12-point plan for universities to improve their engagement with parliaments. Although these findings come from a UK perspective, we think it likely that many of these findings will be useful for universities trying to engage legislatures around the world.
A university that wants to engage effectively with its national legislatures should:
- Have an institutional strategy for knowledge exchange
It is not enough for a few well-placed and well-intentioned academics to lead all academic engagement with Parliament. Engagement with Parliament should be led from an institutional level. For example, Public Policy|Southampton and UCL Public Policy all show institution-level strategic planning for academics from across those institutions to engage.
- Support fellowships of academics placed in legislatures and vice versa
Universities should encourage academics to spend time in policy domains, including offering financial support and protecting time allocated to knowledge exchange. Some are also well placed to offer fellowships to policy makers from parliament, for example the fellowships offered by the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Science and Policy.
- Build in knowledge exchange time into workload models
The engagement of academics would be made easier if knowledge exchange was built into workload plans, including for early career researchers, who may have less experience with knowledge exchange.
- Support staff to engage with select committees
For example, academic staff should be supported to submit written evidence to committees, provide oral evidence and to act as specialist advisers on request. There are roles for universities to play in flagging opportunities to academics and encouraging them to participate, helping them to write evidence submissions, or reading drafts, and enabling flexibility with university commitments so as to be able to take on specialist adviser positions.
- Commit to reducing barriers to engagement for all researchers
Specifically, barriers should be reduced for researchers with respect of disability, gender, ethnicity, geography and career stage. Where universities are invited by Parliament to nominate researchers to engage with Parliament, they should consider promoting and supporting more diverse academic voices, not nominating their high-profile, well known, go-to ‘usual suspects’.
- Recognise and reward engagement, particularly through promotions criteria
There are many things that could incentivise and reward engagement. Top of our list would be to include knowledge exchange in promotions criteria. Other things are to raise the visibility of parliamentary engagement, through newsletters, university websites and blogs.
- Have internal funding competitions for projects that engage with parliaments
Make sure that knowledge exchange funding is not all pre-allocated on an annual basis, but some reserved that can be applied for at short notice for new opportunities and in response to invitations from legislatures.
- Encourage staff to co-author outputs with parliamentary staff and politicians
Publishing articles and writing research proposals is the bread-and-butter of academic life. Academics could seek opportunities to co-develop research proposals with policymakers, and also co-author blogs, comment pieces and even academic papers. It is a great way to engage policymakers in the academic rigour of many disciplines.
- Fund open access for policy-relevant papers
The move to open access publishing is particularly welcome to people working in legislatures that do not have access to journal libraries. However, open access needs to be paid for, and it is important for universities to step up and pay the full costs of open access publications when not covered by grants.
- Establish policy impact units
Such units are made up of professional services staff who offer support to academics to do policy knowledge exchange. For example, UCL has its Policy Impact Unit, the University of Cambridge has the Centre for Science and Policy, and universities have clubbed together to form UPEN in the UK and SPRE in Scotland. At the very least, universities should have some knowledge exchange staff to identify and promote opportunities for engagement with legislatures.
- Promote and support syntheses of research findings
Policymakers find syntheses of research findings to be more useful than a collection of individual publications. Universities should work with research funders to make synthesising research much more attractive propositions for researchers.
- Offer or enable participation in policy impact training
Training should be offered to staff of all levels in policy-relevant fields, both to increase understanding of legislative processes and to build skills in policy knowledge exchange. Such training could perhaps be provided by policy impact units and knowledge exchange staff.
Many readers will have noticed that some of these suggestions place requirements on legislatures too. For example, legislatures should offer academic fellowships so as to gain from the knowledge and experience of academics in discrete policy areas (point 2); and legislatures should engage with researchers to help develop co-designed or legislature-informed research proposals (point 8). But that is for another blog.
This plan has two important benefits. First, bringing knowledge to bear on legislative activity has the potential to improve laws, scrutiny and debate. This benefits laws, scrutiny and debate but it is also broadly important for democracy that those facets of our system work well. Second, politicians that benefit from the fruits of university research are more likely to look kindly on a sector that requires significant political support to thrive. Politicians can change the climate in which universities operate.