Reaching out from Westminster

Last week, a cross departmental trio made their way up to what turned out to be a very sunny Lancaster. The trip was intended to foster greater links between Parliament and the academic world by helping to dispel some of the mystery of Westminster, and by encouraging academics to engage with evidence-based scrutiny and policy making. The visit by staff from the House of Commons Library’s Science and Environment Section and the Energy and Climate Change Committee, with input from Parliamentary Outreach, was at the invitation of Lancaster University’s Environment Centre.

So off we went, away from the safety of Westminster and out into the big wide world. Where we were warmly received and delivered a presentation to a full lecture theatre of at least 70 (post and undergraduate) students, lecturers and professors.

A key message that we gave was the value of evidence from academics to select committees, and how this can be used to inform MPs. While committee scrutiny does sometimes involve directly challenging academic research or science (for example the Energy and Climate Change Committee’s inquiry into the IPCC 5th Assessment Review), by and large expert witnesses are not being held to account, but are enhancing the knowledge and understanding of politicians and the public. They are not typically hauled over the coals, as a Minister justifying policy decisions or departmental performance might be.

The role of the Library in briefing backbenchers in Parliament, as well as the Opposition, was highlighted and contrasted with the armies of civil servants at the disposal of Government ministers. The breadth and depth of Library support for MPs is substantial – the Science and Environment Section has worked for 70% of all MPs during this Parliament. And well-informed library clerks/specialists in turn can result in well-informed parliamentarians. The more academics can do to communicate their research, and its policy implications or applications, the better.

After the seminar, we met Prof Nigel Paul and Prof John Quinton (the out-going and in-coming Associate Directors of research in Lancaster Environment Centre), Dr Andy Jarvis (Acting Head of Energy Lancaster), Prof Gordon Walker (co-director of DEMAND energy centre), Dr Jane Taylor (Associate Director for undergraduate strategy and recruitment) and Dr Alona Armstrong (Energy Lancaster Research Fellow) for a round table discussion.

During this they outlined the amazing breadth of research that is undertaken: plant and crop science, biodiversity and conservation, earth sciences, atmospheric sciences, water and oil science, environmental chemistry and society and environment. They also have three cross-cutting research actions that stimulate and support research that cuts across traditional disciplinary boundaries to address global environmental challenges: understanding a changing planet, improving global stewardship and innovation for a better environment. Furthermore, it’s not just academics in the building – 25 SMEs (small/medium enterprises), the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (a NERC research centre) and the Environment Agency are co-located in Lancaster Environment Centre. Energy Lancaster is a cross department research centre with expertise on the demand and supply side. They have research strengths across nuclear, renewables, carbon storage and management and energy and society and work in partnership with global organisations in the development and management of secure and sustainable energy supplies in support of the world’s energy needs.

All this was rounded off that evening with some lively discussion over some local ale and a traditional ‘game pie’.

And this is by no means the end of the story. Plans are afoot for more Library specialists and Committee staff to spend time at Lancaster, with the offer of ‘hot-desk’ space on the table, getting more into the detail of its work as part of maintaining and enhancing their specialist knowledge and skills. And the University has plans of its own too, hoping to produce a series of briefing notes that will present research findings in a digestible format: simultaneously informing politicians and others in the policy space, and encouraging the development of the skill of demonstrating policy or political relevance of detailed evidence-based research. They also plan to incorporate aspects of the policy world into their teaching, for example running mock inquiries and including the production of Parliament style Standard Notes as a form of assessment. Watch these spaces:

  • Lancaster Environment Centre – http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/lec/
  • Energy Lancaster  – http://www.energy.lancs.ac.uk/
  • DEMAND – http://www.demand.ac.uk/

Sarah Hartwell-Naguib