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Neil Heckels

26 March 2019, 4:55 UTC Share

Of Mice and MPs: a year of engaging with Parliament

A week in politics might be a long time, but a year of working with parliament flies over. Or at least that was one reflection I had recently, when attempting to capture the range of Durham University’s contributions to the UK and devolved parliaments over the last 12 months. We’ve had a big push on increasing our parliamentary engagement in the last year and it has been hugely encouraging to see many of our Early Career Researchers (ECRs) and PhD students getting involved, as well as more experienced colleagues, for whom working with policymakers has long been core to their work.

Looking back then to April 2018, we were delighted to see so many of Prof Thom Brooks’s recommendations to the Lords’ Committee on Citizenship and Civic Responsibility about changes to the ‘Life in the UK’ citizenship test incorporated into the final report of the inquiry. A great result after many years making the case in the media and with policymakers.

On a very wet and windy day in May, we welcomed advisers from the ExEU and Foreign Affairs committees to Durham to encourage ECRs from the North East to engage more with select committees. Dr Fiona Vera-Grey from Durham University Law School also continued her long-standing involvement with the Women and Equalities Committee which included being an adviser and giving oral evidence on sexual harassment in public.

In June, , two of our three Parliamentary Academic Fellows , Prof Laurence Ferry and Dr Andreas Pantazatos, were getting their feet under the table in Westminster, Laurence with the Communities and Local Government Select Committee and Andreas with the Parliament Restoration and Renewal project. The Fellowship programme, which is managed by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, has been such a positive initiative for us and has really helped facilitate wider opportunities for the University to engage with different parts of the UK Parliament.

It was fitting that, as the weather really started warming up in July, , colleagues from Durham Energy Institute were in Westminster Hall with Energy Minister, Claire Perry MP, discussing the potential for geothermal energy to decarbonise the UK’s heat supply. Helen Goodman, MP for Bishop Auckland, has been a wonderful advocate for the University’s research into the potential of capturing heat from abandoned mines.

The parliamentary recess in August, allowed time for Prof Emma Cave, an expert in healthcare law, to get acquainted with the Scottish Parliament to undertake an Academic Fellowship, briefing MSPs on the implications of changes to the informed consent laws in Scotland .

A Parliamentary and Scientific Committee meeting in September, on ‘space’ gave the perfect opportunity for us to promote a new book on ‘Space Risk’ that our physicists had contributed to.

October, , and in the response to the Chancellor’s budget statement, research into the experiences of ‘Forgotten Workers’ in multiple, low-paid employment by Jo McBride from our Business School was quoted in the Commons by Judith Cummins MP to highlight that official employment figures may be masking hidden forms of inequality.

In November, , the Scottish Parliament Education and Skills Committee opened a new inquiry into standardised assessments to track children’s attainment in schools. With many years’ experience providing school assessments via Durham’s Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring, Prof Christine Merrell was ideally placed to provide some written recommendations to help frame the inquiry.
November, also saw us launch The Forgotten Workers Report, with the research back on the Parliamentary agenda again in December, , Lord Sawyer bringing the report to the attention of the House of Lords to highlight the issues facing people experiencing in-work poverty.

After a short festive break we kicked off the new year in January 2019, with a select committee double bill. On the same morning that the previously mentioned Christine Merrell gave oral evidence to the opening session of the Education and Skills inquiry, Michael Nower, a PhD candidate from our Business School, was offering the International Trade Committee insights into future trade options with Australia and New Zealand. The former only being upstaged by an appearance from the (now famous) Holyrood Mouse …!

In February, , it was lovely to receive an invitation from our local MP Roberta Blackman Woods, who chairs the All Party Parliamentary University Group, to showcase research at a #MadeinUni campaign event in Portcullis House. The campaign, which is doing a brilliant job of raising public awareness about the world-changing research of UK Universities, included liquid repellent coatings developed at Durham , now integral to over 100 million smartphones worldwide.

And in March, , well, it’s been nice to take a bit of time to reflect on all this and to remind ourselves that there are so many different ways for the parliamentary and research communities to connect and share knowledge. And while it feels like it’s been a good year for Durham, there is so much more we can do collectively across the HE sector, which is why it is great to see the likes of POST investing in Knowledge Exchange and being really positive about the opportunity to collaborate with UPEN.

Neil Heckels is a Senior Policy Engagement Manager at Durham University, leading the University’s central support for public policy related impact and engagement.

Author: Neil Heckels, Senior Policy Engagement Manager at Durham University

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