A Recipe for Impact? Strengthening academic engagement with Parliament

Reporting on new research that looks at the way parliamentary staff wish academics would engage with Parliament, Katharine Dommett argues that researchers would benefit from not only rethinking where and how they target research, but also the very form academic research should take.

The expectation that academics engage with those beyond academe has become an established norm within higher education. With the rise of assessment schemes, such as the UK Research Excellence Framework (REF), and funding applications that require academics to specify the ‘impact’ of their work, there are now numerous incentives for academics to demonstrate the relevance of their work for policy, society or the economy. This approach tallies with theories of technocratic governance that attribute academics and other experts specialist knowledge that enables them to offer solutions which other non-experts are unable to offer. This privileged status suggests that any activity pursued by academics will be able to offer some value to wider society, and yet this dynamic is often far from the reality of academic engagement. Indeed, our recent study of parliamentary impact has demonstrated that academic engagements are often far from enlightening. In fact, parliamentary staff reported academics’ tendency to ‘crudely repurpose something they’ve done elsewhere’ rather than providing useful knowledge that addresses parliamentary needs.

In this context we argue that there is a need to build on existing debates around the nature, value and best practice of impact by considering the question: ‘how can academics best ensure that impact related activities are valuable for users?

To answer this question, we examined what staff in the UK Parliament wanted from academics. This arena is the site of much academic engagement. Indeed, 20% of REF impact case studies outlined substantive engagement with Parliament. So, academics clearly saw value in engaging with Parliament; but what about parliamentary staff? That was the focus of our study: what staff wanted, how this differed from what they got, and what this meant for academics that want o engage more. Our findings suggest that whilst where and how academics engage is important, there can often be a fundamental mismatch of knowledge requirements that only greater shared understanding can help overcome.

Where?

At the most basic, we found that there are remarkable differences in what different parts of Parliament want. Whilst often discussed in homogenous terms, Parliament is a diverse environment in which knowledge requirements dramatically differ. As the table below illustrates, Parliament is composed of different sites (of which this is not an exhaustive list) that deal with knowledge in different ways.

Table 3. Academic engagement with Parliament
POST Libraries Committees
What do they do? Provide accessible overviews of research Impartial information and research services for MPs and peers Scrutinise government policy on the basis of evidence that they may gather
What do they produce? POSTnotes Library notes Committee reports
Who is their key audience? MPs and peers MPs, peers, the public MPs, peers, government, the media, the public

In turn, this creates different requirements for academics, with committees wanting targeted interventions from academics on specific topics and requirements in line with published calls for evidence, and the Parliamentary Library often seeking out academic work of their own accord. The pathway to impact can accordingly vary dramatically. Academics were seen to enhance their capacity for impact when they understood and responded to the differing needs of Parliament.

How?

At a second level, we found clear evidence that certain ways of engaging are valued across Parliament. In particular our participants emphasised the value of:

  1. Clarity: Parliamentary staff want evidence that is ‘clearly written’, has ‘clear methods’, is transparent about sources and explains why it is important.
  2. Accessibility: Most academic articles are behind journal pay walls so staff particularly value accessible work. Academic blog posts are deemed as increasingly effective in translating academic research. One library representative noted: ‘blogs have been an absolute god-send. They have revolutionised my working life’.
  3. Utility: Participants noted that parliamentarians particularly valued work that contained statistics or narrative accounts such as case studies that bought research findings to life.
  4. Timeliness: Parliamentary staff work on tight timescales and need to produce up to date research on a range of given topics. Academics able to quickly respond with up to date research were particularly valued.

Such insights suggest the need for academics to translate their research more effectively, becoming familiar with the language and format of parliamentary work to make it easier for their work to be picked up.

Knowledge Itself?

Our most profound insight, however, concerns the very nature of academic knowledge itself. It is easy to presume that academic knowledge is inherently valued, and that, if translated effectively, it will be willingly received by non-academic audiences. However, this presumes a neat correlation between the kind of knowledge academics produce, and the knowledge practitioners’ desire. Our project demonstrated that the correlation is not often found. Whilst parliamentary staff clearly value academic expertise, often the knowledge provided fails to match parliamentary demands. Whether this mismatch derives from the form in which information was provided, or the actual nature of research, it was often the case that academic inputs were not as valuable as they could have been. This suggests the need for academics to focus not on the translation of research, but on developing and producing research that is aware of and responds tonon-academic needs.

For this reason we promote the co-production of research, encouraging academics to work with non-academic audiences (in parliament and beyond) to work out what they want and why. In the parliamentary context our research showed staff’s willingness to engage in these ways, suggesting a clear path for those interested in maximising academic impact. Our research therefore suggests a need to look beyond translation. Only by recognising and responding to the value of different kinds of knowledge (that may not be the norm within academe) can scholars begin to engage in ways likely to deliver real world impact.

The report on which this blog is based is available here.

About the author

Dr Katharine Dommett is Lecturer in the Public Understanding of Politics at the Department of Politics, University of Sheffield. She tweets: @KateDommett.

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