Academic evidence is “gold dust” to policy makers, say visitors from the House of Commons.

On a very sunny Monday three members of House of Commons staff made the journey north to Lancaster to give an Energy Lancaster Seminar and discuss how to further interactions between policy makers and academia.  They were invited by Energy Fellow, Dr Alona Armstrong, who spent a month last year working for the Energy and Climate Change Committee (ECC) in the House of Commons (Read Alona’s blog about being an academic working in the House of Commons).

Sarah Hartwell-Naguib is the Head of the Science and Environment Section of the House of Commons Library and was the Clerk of ECC; Tom Leveridge is an ECC Specialist and Elena Ares is a Science and Environment Library Specialist.

The title of the seminar was ‘What goes on at Westminster? An overview of the House of Commons and the work of the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee’ and they talked to a packed lecture theatre of 70 people, ranging from undergraduates to professors from a wide variety of departments including the Lancaster Environment Centre (LEC), Physics and Sociology.

They gave a broad overview of what goes on in Parliament and how academics could get involved. Tom pointed out that Department of Energy and Climate Change has 1400 staff and that there are only two ECC committee specialists to balance the brief. Given that, they have to be generalists, working on inquiries from shale gas to the green deal to assessment - they need knowledge and evidence from academics.

Elena explained that for specialists, academic evidence is ‘gold dust’ given academics’ neutral take on subjects, evidence-based approach and habit of fully referencing statements. They want to encourage academics to provide more evidence as its generally good quality. Academics do not necessarily have to submit finely crafted prose in response to a call for evidence: succinct bullets with references or even an informal discussion over the phone would be very well received.

Sarah revealed that influencing policy through Opposition and back-bench MPs, who the House of Commons staff work for, can be more effective than dealing with MPs who are in the Government, as the opposition and back-benchers are freer to challenge Government. Indeed, in the former Labour minister Chris Mullins’ biography, he said he’d never experienced such a loss of power as when he got into Government.

Professor Kevin Jones, Director of Lancaster Environment Centre, said: “We are committed to building links between Lancaster’s pioneering research and those who use it.  The environment is one key area where academics have a responsibility to disseminate their research findings effectively to policy makers, so it is great to see these interactions between Lancaster University and the House of Commons”.

Those who attended found the experience illuminating.

“The seminar was a really valuable opportunity to learn about how select committees work and how 'evidence' is drawn together to inform policy debate,” said sociologist Nicola Spurling, Senior Research Associate in the DEMAND Centre.

Lancaster Environment Centre PhD student Rose Chard said that the presentation “helped me understand the role that academics play in the wider world and how my research might be understood by those outside of academia. This talk was excellent in helping me to think beyond the production of a PhD thesis or a journal article.”

“It is said that a week is a long time in politics”, commented physicist Dr Manus Haynes. “This seminar highlighted the very short timescales in which scientific support staff at the House of Commons are expected to provide backbenchers with ‘definitive’ synopses of complex scientific issues. It demonstrates how important it is that the academic community engages with decision-makers, and with the public at large.”

See what Sarah, Tom and Elena thought here: