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Juliet Jopson

19 April 2023, 1:56 UTC Share

Engaging UK Parliament with Climate and Environmental Research

Please note: this article was originally published on Policy Leeds Blog.

High quality research evidence helps UK Parliament holds the Government to account, scrutinise legislation, and hold informed debates. Last month the Priestley Centre and Policy Leeds hosted a panel session to explore how climate and environmental researchers could best engage with Parliament.

The session heard from guest speaker Dr Tamsin Edwards, Parliamentary Thematic Research Lead on Climate and Environment, and a panel of Leeds researchers, including Professor Pier Forster, Professor Julia Martin-Ortega, and Megan Tresise, who have all taken different routes to engaging with Parliament. Dr Carrie Bradshaw, who chaired, is an expert in environmental law and food waste, and has experience of working with Parliament.

Key routes to engage with Parliament

The session started with Dr Tamsin Edwards explaining about the new role of Parliamentary Thematic Research Lead. Not dissimilar to the Government’s network of Departmental Chief Scientific Advisors, these roles will support three new thematic policy hubs, launching in April, covering International Affairs and National Security; Parliament, Public Administration and Constitution; and — in Tamsin’s case — Climate and Environment. Part of the role will be to help ensure that the best available research evidence feeds into Parliament, and to strengthen the connections between Parliament and the research community.

Tamsin’s first tip was for researchers to be clear about the differing functions of Parliament and Government: “we use the words politics and government quite interchangeably, quite often we interchange it with Parliament, and of course as soon as you actually go into one of these institutions, you very, very, strongly feel the difference between them”.

While Government is in charge of the legislative agenda and running Government departments, it is still accountable to Parliament and relies on it to make laws.

Another difference Tamsin flagged is that, unlike Government civil servants who work with just the Government Ministers, Parliamentary staff work with all parties and non-party MPs or Lords. For these staff, political impartiality is really important.

Tamsin highlighted some well recognised routes for researchers to engage with Parliament, including contributing to Parliamentary briefings, via POST, or ensuring that research is accessible and visible to the Parliamentary Libraries.

She observed that while POST briefings take months to put together and involve peer review, the Parliamentary libraries use pre-existing academic research to write bespoke briefings on a very rapid turnaround, so need to have the relevant information at their fingertips.

Select Committees hold inquiries which gather written and oral evidence from a wide range of people. Tamsin says “Basically, anyone can put a submission in. There’s no kind of filter on you, your credentials or anything. So you get a lot of industry, NGOs, charities, and members of the public who want to put their views across. You also get academic experts”. Inquiry reports are submitted to Government who must respond to the findings within 60 days, although they don’t have to take up the recommendations.

Part of Tamsin’s new role is to encourage academics to engage with Select Committee inquiries. She particularly wants researchers to be more confident engaging on cross-cutting issues, highlighting “one thing that’s really noticeable within Parliament and government is they do talk about climate and nature in the same breath. So they are trying to think about the trade-offs and the ways that nature-based solutions help with climate change, but might be good or bad for biodiversity. And this is incredibly important that they’re doing that”.

Join an advisory committee

Professor Piers Forster, Director of the Priestley International Centre for Climate, shared his experience of engaging with Parliament via a very different route. He is a member of the Climate Change Committee (CCC), an independent, statutory body established under the Climate Change Act 2008 to advise the UK and devolved governments on emissions targets. While they mostly deal with Government, the CCC also has a duty to report to Parliament on progress made, and will also advise Parliament when requested.

Piers got the CCC role by applying to an advert. He says: “it sounded a really, really cool job and I worked hard on my CV and what I could contribute”, but he reflected “it was the worst interview timeline ever”. Having been interviewed by senior civil servants and politicians “it then took an 18-month time period for me to be offered the job”. This is because, while the committee is independent of Government, it needed to be signed off by �-10 and all the devolved administrations. But he would still recommend getting involved.

“I thought I wouldn’t have a hope in hell of getting a job on this committee, it had some really significant people on it, but I got the job. So, I would encourage you to look at what’s out there and, if you are interested, just put in an application”.

While being a member of the CCC may help you get through the door, Piers stressed the importance of dressing the part. When you walk into the room with politicians and civil servants you are unlikely to be known, he reflected, so you need to look like you are someone worth listening to.

Support MPs and Lords asking Parliamentary questions

Professor Julia Martin-Ortega, Professor of Ecological Economics and Associate Director of Water at Leeds, supported Baroness Jenny Jones of Moulsecoomb to table a question to Government.

Julia said it began when Baroness Jones wrote a tweet calling on the Government to do more about peatland. Someone who knew of Julia’s work responded to the Baroness to say she should talk to Julia as she had analysis on the social economic benefits of restoring peatlands.

Julia and Baroness Jones spoke about the work being done at Leeds on peat, and the Baroness proposed tabling a question to Government. Asking questions is a formal route for Parliament to scrutinise what the Government is doing and to hold it to account, they can be oral questions or written questions.

With support from Policy Leeds, Julia and the Leeds team prepared a Water at Leeds briefing on the environmental and socio-economic benefits of peatland restoration summarising the evidence. They then worked with Baroness Jones and her team to put together a question for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

There are specific rules as to how Parliamentary questions can be formulated. They first asked the Government if they had plans to increase or bring forward their targets for peatland restoration. Answers can be followed up with a second question, so they went on to ask what steps the Government would take to restore more peatlands by 2040 in order to avoid further costs.

Julia reflected on the importance of raising the visibility of your research and being able to respond quickly. “The Baroness wanted the evidence that week” she says, so it helps to “have your headlines and key messages ready”.

Julia recommends working collaboratively, as she did with colleagues at Water at Leeds, as this allows you to answer questions outside of your own specific expertise. She also noted “you have to have the confidence to say, yeah, I am the person who can help put this question to the Government”.

Do a Parliamentary placement

The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) regularly hosts academic fellows to help write Parliamentary briefings, one of which being Postgraduate researcher Megan Tresise

During the second year of her PhD, a colleague flagged up the opportunity to apply for a POST fellowship funded by the N8 AgriFood programme.

Megan’s fellowship ran for three months from October 2021, during which time was contacted leading academics and key stakeholders in industry, NGOs, and those in government positions. She organised and conducted 22 interviews in total, including the Chief Scientific Advisor for Defra, Gideon Henderson.

Megan worked closely with her advisor at POST, Jonathan Wentworth, and they wrote and edited the POSTnote Restoring Agricultural Soils (pdf) together. Megan notes “This is very different from academic writing. POSTnotes are designed to be a ‘quick read over a cup of coffee’ type document, mostly aimed at busy MPs and peers before they go into their next session or inquiry. So it meant losing a lot of the jargon and writing a lot more concisely”.

As well as personally gaining a lot from the experience, Megan said that POSTnotes can be influential and are regularly cited in the Parliamentary record. In their case, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee spoke to both Jonathan and Megan to identify people to talk to as part of their soil health inquiry.

Carrie Bradshaw is also a POST fellow but applied via the Parliamentary academic fellowship route, which is directed at researchers who already have a PhD. These can focus on larger pieces of work compared to opportunities at the postgraduate level.

Further resources
Find out more about engaging with Parliament as a researcher via the POST Knowledge Exchange Unit website Research Impact at the UK Parliament

Receive updates on parliamentary engagement opportunities including signing up to the POST Knowledge Exchange Unit’s weekly opportunity digest, and ways to follow Select Committee and Parliamentary Library activities.

Discover the range of Select Committees, their remits and what they are up to via the Parliament’s Find a Committee webpage. Select Committees that may be relevant to climate and environmental researchers include the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, and Environmental Audit Committee (both House of Commons), Environment and Climate Change Committee (House of Lords) and Science and Technology Committee in the Commonsand in the House of Lords.

Read guidance on how to submit evidence to House of Commons Select Committee or House of Lords Select Committee. You can also access training videos on working with Select Committees by the Knowledge Exchange team.

UK Universities Climate Network (UUCN) disseminates climate change research and analysis, conduct evidence-based public engagement, and share evidence for climate action with policymakers, including the UK Government

University of Leeds researchers can get further advice and support via Policy Leeds

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