Bringing academic insight into Parliament

An increased demand for expert evidence requires new ways of bringing academic research into Parliament. Rowena Bermingham and Sarah Foxen introduce the Areas of Research Interest.

Open a newspaper or scroll through your Twitter feed right now and you will probably stumble across a discussion about the role of experts and evidence in policy-making.

In the middle of a pandemic, many people are understandably asking: what exactly are policy decisions being based on?

The role of academics in Covid-19 related policy

The UK Government has been criticised by academics and the media for a lack of transparency on the evidence being used to make crucial decisions during the Covid-19 outbreak. The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) has responded to this by making evidence available on a weekly basis and publishing their minutes. SAGE and its subgroups are necessarily limited in size because they need to balance reflecting a range of expertise with being small enough to hold productive meetings. However, there are other ways that the UK can ensure that a wider pool of experts is influencing decisions. One way that is often overlooked in discussions about the use of evidence and expertise is parliamentary scrutiny.

UK Parliament’s role is to debate, challenge and check the work of HM Government. During the Covid-19 outbreak, we at the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) have been working on ways to ensure that parliamentary scrutiny is shaped by a wide range of experts. POST is UK Parliament’s in-house source of research expertise, providing the bridge between research and policy. During the Covid-19 outbreak, we have been trialing new ways to bring research expertise into UK Parliament.

Casting the net wide to seek expertise for Parliament

Our first step in bringing in expertise was to establish a way to contact the widest possible pool of experts on Covid-19 and its likely impacts. On 25 March (just two days after the start of the national lockdown) we used Twitter and our Knowledge Exchange Unit’s extensive network of knowledge mobilisers in universities across the UK to ask researchers with relevant expertise to sign up to a Covid-19 outbreak expert database. Over the next week, 4,000 experts joined our database. By the time we closed the database a couple of months later, nearly 5,500 experts had signed up. Our experts came from institutions across the country and had a wide range of specialisms. We used this database to search for relevant experts for our parliamentary colleagues to contact in relation to their work. We supported over 20 select committees in this way during the first 2 months of the database being live.

Seeking the wisdom of the crowds

We also considered that the wisdom of crowds would help to provide more balanced and accurate insights than relying on one person or a small group of individuals. So, in April, we launched a survey to ask experts on our database what their concerns were about the impacts of COVID-19 in the short, medium and long-term. Over 1,100 experts responded (with a narrow majority from non-Russell Group institutions). We used a combination of thematic analysis and data science to synthesise their responses into 16 publicly available reports.

We recognised from this work that our experts’ concerns highlighted very clearly where UK Parliament was most likely to need research evidence in the future. From there we drew out a list of over 100 questions relating to what UK Parliament would need to know to be able to scrutinise the Government’s response to the Covid-19 outbreak. We also asked staff from across Parliament to review and contribute potential questions.

Acknowledging what we don’t know

On 6 October we published UK Parliament’s first ever Areas of Research Interest (ARIs). ARIs are lists of policy issues or questions. They are a way for an organisation to express interest in seeing more research evidence in certain topics and were originally started by UK Government departments following the Nurse review of UK Research Councils in 2015. The method used for Parliament’s ARIs was novel, in that it brought together diverse expert opinion and internal parliamentary demand to set out the likely research evidence needs.

New ways to work together

Parliament’s Covid-19 ARIs are likely to fulfil multiple purposes. They create an opportunity for communication between the research community and UK Parliament. They may also inform the priorities of the research community and can be included in grant applications as proof of parliamentary interest. We are also using them to elicit research evidence to fill knowledge gaps and diversify Parliament’s usual research sources. To meet these aims, we have established a repository of research relating to UK Parliament’s Covid-19 ARIs. We are inviting researchers to add information about their current or future research to this repository, which parliamentary staff may then search for relevant research and contacts if a particular area becomes a topic of scrutiny within Parliament.

We know that researchers are time poor, and (perhaps now more than ever) are juggling multiple demands. This is another reason why we are evolving mechanisms such as our surveys and ARIs; through seeking the insights of the masses, the individual time commitment is lower. We also know that researchers may be hesitant to invest time in parliamentary engagement because of a lack of recognition. For this reason we have been working with Research England over the past few years, to ensure engagement and impact are increasingly recognised in the REF and KEF. Beyond this, we know that supporting the Covid-19 crisis and recovery is one of the Government priorities laid out for HEIF.

It has been said that crisis can drive innovation, and this has certainly been the case for us in POST in 2020. As we have sought the insights of researchers to support Parliament through new knowledge exchange mechanisms, the academic community has stepped up. It is our hope that this innovation and collaboration will continue. We will be doing all we can to ensure it does and we are immensely grateful for the support of the research community who have joined us on this journey.

To find out more about Parliament’s Covid-19 ARI’s and repository, see here. To find out more about how researchers can engage with Parliament, see here.

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