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'Being There': The Value, Impact and Practical Challenges of being an Academic Fellow in Parliament
Have you ever wondered what it is like to conduct your research in parliament? The UK legislatures host a number of fellowship schemes, including in partnership with various Research Councils, learned societies, charities and specific institutions, to enable academics at different career levels, and from different disciplines, to spend time working on specific projects that benefit the academic, the university and the legislature. While some schemes have been evaluated, there has been little sharing of information on how well they work, what practical challenges exist and what impact they have.
We have spent the past three years ducking in and out of the House of Commons, researching our various projects, having each been fortunate enough to be awarded a Political Studies Association/House of Commons Academic Fellowship in 2016. We are working on a range of projects covering devolution, public engagement, standards and prime ministerial accountability. We have presented our research at several conferences, written parliamentary library briefings and generated impactful research. As we come to the end of our fellowships, extended due to the 2017 election, we have been reflecting on the value and importance of such schemes. During this time parliament has been centre stage in the Brexit drama and we have often had a ring side seat – one of us sat with the clerks while the Prime Minister was questioned at Liaison Committee while another was caught up in the lock down in March 2017 when PC Keith Palmer was murdered on the parliamentary estate.
A variety of fellowship schemes
In recent years, the Westminster Parliament, Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales have each all sought to establish structured schemes that are clearer in their objectives and open to applications through free and fair competition to all appropriately qualified persons. In general, these schemes were set up as pilots – in particular, the UK Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) parliamentary academic fellowship scheme pilot launched in November 2016 – but how well do they work and what can we learn from such schemes?
In total, 34 academics have participated in the two main academic fellowship schemes in Westminster. Five fellows were accepted via the House of Commons Academic Fellowship Scheme (with the PSA), and 29 on the Parliamentary Academic Fellowship Scheme (via POST). In addition, there are various schemes placing PhD students in Parliament, and also in the devolved legislatures. This structured interaction with experts, and development of research partnerships is to be welcomed. The integration of university-based researchers into the policy and scrutiny environment can only be a good thing in terms of informing debate, raising the profile of university research and generating impact in a range of areas.
These schemes provide positive opportunities for academics to engage with parliamentarians and parliamentary staff, informing and advising, while bringing expertise into the legislative arena. Yet, practical challenges to working in such an environment do exist. To add to our own personal reflections, we organised a workshop in the House of Commons on 16 November 2018, together with POST staff. As fellows we were keen to bring together academics on different schemes and parliamentary staff from across the legislatures to share their experiences and draw together some guidance for future Fellows.
What is the value of the fellowships?
These schemes are extremely valuable both to academics and the legislatures themselves. The schemes can ensure that parliamentary staff have expert analysis on hand in a range of policy areas and can also enable academics to interact directly with the legislative process. Direct calls can give researchers the opportunity to respond to a clear need in a specific policy area, while open calls enable projects that might not otherwise come to fruition to be pursued. Placing expertise within parliaments is to be welcomed. The exposure to parliamentary process can and should be a valuable experience for researchers. On a personal level, the chance to see parliament from the inside, free to move around as a pass holder, is a real privilege. Furthermore, parliamentary staff have welcomed the input of academics from outside the parliamentary ‘bubble’, providing a different perspective.
What are the practical challenges of working in Parliament?
Once successful with an application via whichever scheme, academics have to navigate the challenge of being a temporary researcher in the legislature. This can be for a short period or a prolonged time. It can range from being a fully integrated committee specialist to a semi-detached researcher, dipping in and out. Many fellows have a member of the parliamentary staff as a mentor to help and guide them through the practicalities. Most academics still need to juggle institutional commitments including teaching and research roles, with work in and with parliament, although the case for research leave, internal impact related funding and other support may be much stronger with a fellowship. Fellows with less distance to travel certainly have an advantage, enabling them to be on hand and more available to parliament. In addition, academic cycles differ from the parliamentary ones, making juggling of teaching commitments a challenge. Then there are the practicalities of finding your way around, dealing with confidential material, negotiating status issues, and simply finding somewhere reasonably quiet to work and conduct interviews.
Making an impact?
For parliamentary staff and fellows, the recording and measurement of ‘impact’ is widely seen as important. Parliamentary staff welcome the expertise that researchers bring, but mindful of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) agenda, academics are keen to demonstrate the impact of the research. To maximise impact there could be a clearer focus on what skills and benefits academics bring, for example, which might sometimes be particular knowledge or expertise, but which could also include helping committees to appraise evidence and bringing a critical perspective. Achieving impact may, however, bring different challenges depending on the experience and career stage of the academic involved.
While the REF has led to a greater emphasis on impact in higher education, the definition of impact used by the REF can be quite narrow, and it would be expected that in many instances the impact and engagement activities of fellows would extend beyond the REF interpretation. The lesson of the previous REF is, however, that engagement in and with parliament, featured heavily in impact case studies and the research environment returns. Engagement with practitioners to get research expertise into the public domain via the legislature is an important conduit.
Guidance for future fellows
We welcome the efforts to evaluate the various schemes and gather evidence from fellows and staff. Parliamentary staff are dedicated and highly professional individuals. They are often working to very tight deadlines and under the pressure of demanding parliamentarians in a rapidly shifting political environment. Academic fellows do need to appreciate the working environment, but also need to navigate the political territory. Inductions can help to understand this environment, provide clear guidance on what fellows can (and cannot do) as part of the research. Fellows should make sure that they have a good understanding of parliamentary process and practice to help shape their engagement. This could range from what a Select Committee does to legislative procedure, but may also cover conventions, rituals and customs. Fellows need to be self-starters, able and willing to get on with either their own research agenda or understand the terms of their engagement with minimal direction. Events, staff changes, and political fluctuations can change the environment. For instance, a supportive Select Committee chair could be replaced by a less supportive one, while mentors and clerks sometimes change frequently. In addition, a once salient research issue may no longer be as important. Fellows need to be willing to adapt to a changed political environment at short notice.
Fellowship schemes are a very welcome addition to the parliamentary landscape. They have the potential to provide sound evidence-based support to the legislature and enhance the quality of outputs with research informed analysis. The process of working in parliament does, however, present practical challenges, whereby fellows do need to gain the trust of officials and parliamentarians. Our workshop in November 2018 and subsequent report – which includes several recommendations - is a part of the evaluation process in which the academic profession and parliamentary officials responsible for the schemes can learn some lessons to improve the functioning of such schemes to the benefit of all.
Our report is published here.
Parlilinc is the University of Lincoln Parliamentary Research Group (https://parlilinc.blogs.lincoln.ac.uk/).
Margaret Arnott is a Professor at the University of West Scotland; Mark Bennister is a Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Lincoln; Catherine Bochel is a Reader in Policy Studies at the University of Lincoln and Alistair Clark is a Reader in Politics at the University of Newcastle.