“Getting your research in front of people who matter” – the benefits of policy placements


Professor Rachel Murray (Professor of International Human Rights, University of Bristol Law School)

Jamie Evans (Senior Research Associate, Personal Finance Research Centre, School of Geographical Sciences)

Dr Tamsin Sharp (Visiting Research Associate, MRC Integrative Epidemiology Unit, Population Health Sciences, University of Bristol)

The Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology (POST) and UKRI support policy fellowships and internships in government departments and branches of Parliament. These placements can provide a wide range of benefits, from enhancing knowledge and understanding of how parliament works, to helping expand networks and developing transferable skills. PolicyBristol has been working with three researchers from different career stages to support them to apply for these positions and during the lifetime of the posts. In this blog, these researchers share some of the highlights and benefits of undertaking these roles.

Photo by Michael D Beckwith on Unsplash

What work are you doing for and which department are you working with?

Rachel Murray: I am working with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association-UK. CPA-UK ran a programme which worked with The Gambian National Assembly, the parliament, to revise its Standing Orders after the change of government. They wanted someone to evaluate not only the success or otherwise of the programme but also the implementation of the Standing Orders. The project involves desk-based research, a series of interviews with individuals in the UK and The Gambia and a visit to the National Assembly in Banjul as well as workshops with National Assembly Members.

Jamie Evans: I am working within the Business and Transport Team at the House of Commons Library, which is essentially a place where MPs can access accurate, impartial and accessible information on a whole range of topics relevant to their work. As part of my fellowship I have mainly been involved in writing briefing papers for MPs on subjects related to my work: financial inclusion, financial technology and debt.

Tamsin Sharp: I worked within the Drugs & Alcohol, Domestic Abuse, and VaWG (Violence against Women and Children) research teams at the Home Office. This included evidence gathering, data analysis, and writing briefing papers.

What have you found most interesting and useful about the post? 

Rachel: It has given me the opportunity for greater insight into how parliament, both in England, and in The Gambia works and the technical rules that apply. My knowledge of parliamentary processes has also improved. I have also been able to learn more about the parliamentary system in The Gambia which complements other work that I have been doing there and across the continent.

Tamsin: The most interesting aspect of working in government was experiencing how scientific research can be best used to inform policy. It was a really valuable experience to work within a multidisciplinary team alongside economists, social researchers and policymakers to evaluate how findings should influence future policy.

Jamie: Part of the role of the House of Commons Library is to answer enquiries from MPs and their staff. At the start of my fellowship I spent a lot of time going through these enquiries to help me determine what subjects might need briefing papers written on. It was fascinating to see what enquiries came through, as these were often based on questions that constituents had previously contacted their MP about. This has given me new ideas for research and was also just generally a really interesting insight into the democratic process. It really is incredible to see the wide range of issues that MPs get contacted about.

What barriers have you come up against?

Rachel: The visit to The Gambia has not been possible during this time, neither have I been able to meet in person with CPA-UK colleagues, nor visit Westminster. We have found a number of ways to ensure that the project continues. The first part of the evaluation (of the programme itself) has been able to proceed and I drafted a timeline and factors for good practice for similar projects for use by the CPA-UK in other programmes. We held a small webinar to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on the Standing Orders and we are planning some additional webinars on certain aspects of the Standing Orders, in lieu of interviews.

Jamie: Obviously COVID-19 has meant that I haven’t travelled to London nearly as much as I had expected: Parliament has looked a lot more like my living room than I thought it would! This has meant that I probably have missed out on some of the opportunities for networking and attending events that I otherwise would have. But it has also opened up some interesting opportunities. For instance, I was lucky enough to help trial the remote voting system to be used by the House of Lords! I’ve also been lucky enough to speak to members of the Treasury Select Committee team, which has been really invaluable.

Tamsin: COVID-19 completely changed the course of my project, particularly regarding specific research areas becoming a focus whilst others were deprioritised. Due to the national lockdown I only spent a couple of days at the Home Office, but fortunately remote working did not impact negatively on my time there and there was a lot of online support from colleagues. We also had to find alternative ways of carrying out some projects – such as conducting focus groups via video call instead of in person. In comparison to my experience of academic research, one challenging aspect was responding to urgent requests from very high-profile customers, particularly on issues that were publicised in the media.

What transferable skills have you developed through this position?

Jamie: The fellowship has given me extra confidence to be able to engage with Parliamentarians, as well as more of an understanding of how best to present information to them. Writing letters, blogs, social media and short summaries like those PolicyBristol can help you produce are all really useful tools for getting your research in front of the people that matter.

Tamsin: Working as a government scientist in a priority area allowed me to develop skills in communicating findings to non-academic audiences and working to very short time scales. Prioritisation and setting mini-deadlines are definitely skills I’ve taken back to academic research!

 What advice would you give to others considering a similar position? 

Jamie: I would of course encourage others considering a similar position to go for it! You will definitely get a lot out of it. I also think that academics shouldn’t be afraid to more generally engage with Parliament and policy-makers – if your research is policy-relevant then you do need to go out of your way to put it in front of these people; they’re unlikely to find it if you don’t put it out there.

Tamsin: It was such a valuable experience to work within a policy-driven research environment. I’d recommend that any PhD student interested in how scientific research influences governmental policy takes the opportunity to participate in this kind of scheme.

What has been your high point?

Tamsin: A definite high point was completing a high-priority research project that was very ambitious given the timescales! It included qualitative research (interviews and focus groups with relevant parties), secondary data analysis, and a rapid literature review to answer critical questions on a highly publicised issue. The findings of this project will go on to inform policy and hopefully make a real difference to public health.

The blog post was coordinated by Emily Crick PolicyBristol Associate for Social Sciences and Law, Arts and Humanities

Talk to PolicyBristol for details of opportunities and help with applications:

The POST Fellowships are advertised regularly, some are open calls and others are directed calls. The UKRI-funded policy internships for PGRs are advertised in June with a closing date in September.

PolicyBristol can help all University of Bristol researchers with their applications.