Want impact? Engage with Parliament

Dr Grant Hill-Cawthorne

Research is expected to have impact – and you can make it eligible for REF by engaging with Parliament.

There is more and more emphasis now on research having impact – and in 2014, 20% of impact case studies for the Research Excellence Framework mentioned substantial engagement with Parliament. Even without the REF benefits, though, many researchers will want to see their work read and understood by politicians, and for it to influence policy. So, how should you go about trying to make this happen?

How to ‘engage’

There may be a popular perception that to get a politician to listen to what you have to say you need to hire an expensive lobbyist, but there are a number of (simpler and cheaper) ways of bringing your research to the attention of lawmakers.

You can speak to MPs directly via parliamentary committees, such as the Select Committees in the House of Commons and the House of Lords. I’ll come to those later, but it’s worth pointing out that you can also make sure your research is available to politicians and their researchers by working with:

  • Parliament’s Libraries – each House (Commons and Lords) has its own
  • the organisation I work for, the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST).

The Libraries

Parliament’s Libraries are there to provide specialist impartial information and briefings for MPs, Members of the Lords, their staff, and others at Westminster. They produce a huge range of material, that tends to be reactive – it’s created in response to questions from Members, business in each House and current affairs.

You can see their briefings online, and if you want to contribute to one, you can email the library, making it clear it’s for the attention of the subject specialist who wrote the report. With an initial email like this, it’s best to be brief – keep it under 250 words if you can.

Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology

POST produces short briefings on public policy issues, which we base on reviews of the research literature and interviews with stakeholders from across academia, industry, government and the third sector. (We also get them peer reviewed by experts.)

Our reports are proactive, the aim being to give parliamentarians advance knowledge of issues before they reach the top of the political agenda. Researchers can contribute to our briefings – and you can propose a subject we should cover.

Our contact details are on the website, where you can also find a brochure (PDF) if you want to find out more about our work.

Getting in front of committees

You don’t have to get yourself or your work in front of a committee to have influence, but some committees are influential, and their hearings and reports can have a high profile.

Select Committees hold the government to account by conducting inquiries and producing reports on specific issues and departments. The first step in getting your work in front of them is to submit written evidence. You may then be invited to give oral evidence.

Good written evidence is a little like a blog post – it needs to be relevant, and written for an interested non-expert (avoiding acronyms and jargon). It also has to be concise – ideally, only a couple of pages long.

The most important thing, though, is not simply to diagnose the problem. If they’re holding an inquiry, they’re already aware of it. Where an expert can really help is by making policy recommendations.

Another piece of advice we tend to give academics is not just to recommend more research. Remember you’re the expert, and politicians may need guidance to arrive at the right policy recommendation. Only if research into a subject is still in its infancy, and you don’t think the matter is well enough understood yet for anyone to decide on a policy to tackle it, should you suggest that more research is needed. In these cases, it’s useful for Committees to know what current research has shown and what the evidence gaps might be.

You can find out which committees are calling for evidence on the Parliament website, as well as finding advice on giving written or oral evidence (PDF). You can also offer to host a visit for a Select Committee if your institution’s work is especially relevant to their current inquiry – and you can suggest a subject for them to study by contacting Committee members or staff. Each committee lists members and a point of contact on the website.

[Editor’s note: We will also highlight calls for evidence on the Understanding Society website when they are particularly relevant to research using our data.]

Other opportunities

There are other ways, to contact specific Members or groups, and to influence what people at Westminster are thinking.

Whoever you talk to, the main thing to remember is: work out what you want to say in advance, keep it concise and accessible, and make it clear not just what they need to know, but why they need to know it, and – above all – what you want them to do.

Author

Dr Grant Hill-Cawthorne

Grant is head of POST, the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology