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Megan Marsh, Senior Public Affairs Officer, London School of Economics

07 April 2020, 8:26 UTC Share

Looking ahead to party political conferences 2020: Academic engagement during conference season

Dr Grace Lordan, Megan Marsh, Professor Tony Travers and Dr Anna Valero describe how academics and the public affairs team at LSE have used party conferences to contribute to policy debates and drive the impact of academic research. A longer version of this blog appeared on the LSE Impact blog, @LSEImpactBlog. Improving and broadening debate among experts, […]

Dr Grace Lordan, Megan Marsh, Professor Tony Travers and Dr Anna Valero describe how academics and the public affairs team at LSE have used party conferences to contribute to policy debates and drive the impact of academic research. A longer version of this blog appeared on the LSE Impact blog@LSEImpactBlog.

Improving and broadening debate among experts, non-specialist audiences, and policy makers, is vital for delivering research impact.

Political party conferences are a fertile space for doing just that.

Conferences see parties – politicians, activists, influencers – gather to reflect on local, national and global challenges, and explore and commit to solutions to the challenges of the day.

And at conference fringe events academics, and academic research, can have real impact on policy.

Many organisations put on fringe events, from think tanks to businesses. High-level panels debate issues from the future of taxation to tackling crime in the digital age, bringing together ministers, senior politicians, influential journalists, and business and community leaders.

Having academics on these panels provides factual context and intellectual rigour, fills crucial gaps in evidence, and offers data-driven solutions to real-world problems.

Get Up to Speed on the Political Situation

The variety of events at conferences provides significant scope to speak to influential politicians and understand and influence their thinking. Ministers wander the halls, approachable and interested. MPs and Peers – select committee chairs and elder states people – speak on panels. And regional and local leaders, including powerful mayors and council leaders, look to develop local policies.

Professor Tony Travers says of their knowledge-brokering potential:

“I have attended conferences with LSE for many years, and find them fantastic and valuable opportunities to build new networks and present research to decision-makers. Attending fringe events in your area of interest is a great way to strike up conversations and ask questions… really get involved in the conference by soaking up the political atmosphere, which can help you consider how your research fits into the wider policy-making landscape, and your next steps to have real-world impact”.

Be Flexible and Prepare for Different Audiences

Conferences hold unique opportunities to learn how research fits into wider narratives, with chances for conversations beyond the purely political: from local businesses based in the host city to major national organisations.

While a direct policy change stemming directly from research can be elusive, there are ways to bring recommendations to the fore that can have real impact. Packaging your research to excite different audiences, and getting the timing right, is invaluable. New partnerships with think tanks, business groups, charities and others can help in disseminating ideas and research in future.

Dr Anna Valero attended 2019 conferences, and said of her experience:

“At the panels I spoke on, I adapted my research to focus in on key areas relevant to each Party’s priorities, but maintained the central message that I wanted to get across to all policy-makers. Having a one minute summary of my research and its relevance for policy was essential for quick conversations during the conferences and I found politicians receptive to data and evidence. I used the information I gathered to plan how to maximise the reach and impact of my upcoming, and previous, research.”

Think About Next Steps and New Networks

Whilst conferences stimulate immediate debate, they also initiate wider reflection and action beyond the halls. Dr Grace Lordan, who took her research on skills to 2018 fringes alongside ministers and business leaders, pinpointed longer-term benefits from going to conference.

“It was wonderful to be in front of politicians talking about my research and how my findings might guide them in their policy making. One such conversation led to me taking my research to the Government department working on policy around skills. At the same time, the party conferences connected me to industry partners at the forefront of innovation. Together, the experience has allowed me draw connections across public policy and industry.”

The above three reflections will hopefully be useful for when you start thinking about a possible presence during party conference season for Autumn 2020 and beyond.

Dr Grace Lordan is an associate professor in behavioural science at the London School of Economics. Grace has advised and given talks to large investment banks and international conferences on these topics. Grace has also led projects to advise commissioners in the UK and policy makers in the EC.

Megan Marsh is Senior Public Affairs Officer at LSE. The Public Affairs team at LSE help academics to maximise the policy impact of their research and to integrate LSE expertise into Government and political priorities, including the UK Industrial Strategy “Grand Challenges” and other pressing economic and social issues. Prior to joining LSE, Megan worked in Parliament over a number of years.

Professor Tony Travers is Visiting Professor in LSE’s Department of Government and Director of LSE London. An expert in, and prolific commentator on, the UK public sector and local government, he has advised the Commons Education and the CLG Select Committees and conducted extensive research on issues including local and regional government, cities, and public finance.

Dr Anna Valero is Research Fellow at LSE’s CEP Growth Programme focused on analysing the intersection of productivity, innovation and the role of skills and universities in understanding differences in economic performances between firms and regions. She also focuses on UK productivity and industrial strategy, and in 2017 was a research director for the LSE Growth Commission. Prior to joining LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance (CEP), Anna was manager of Deloitte’s Economic Consulting firm and is a qualified chartered accountant.

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