How scientists and policymakers collaborate towards sustainable Bristol

This blog post was written by Dr Ola Michalec, a social scientist based at the University of Bristol, researching regulation in the domain of digital innovations for sustainable energy. Ola also serves as a member of the Bristol Advisory Committee for Climate Change and is a member of the Cabot Institute for the Environment.

In the world facing increasingly complex and interdisciplinary challenges, our job descriptions expand to account for new collaborations, duties, and types of knowledge to engage with. Civil servants are now expected to ground their policies in evidence, while scientists are required to translate their findings so that they’re useful to the citizens, industry practitioners or politicians.

Climate action is no different. It comes to life at the curious intersection of activism, political will, market incentives, democratic mandate and, of course, scientific knowledge. As a university researcher, I am on a mission to ensure academic knowledge serves Bristol’s transition to the sustainable city.

An effective collaboration across the worlds of science and policy requires some professional unlearning. Convoluted and jargon-filled academic writing style is not going to cut it if we’re serious about influencing ‘the real world’ (sorry). Similarly, our traditional output formats are simply too long to be accessible for policymakers. I also firmly believe that we ought to advance public debates, rather than solely our respective disciplinary conversations; for that matter we need to invite a broader set of discussants to the table.

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Modernising the Mental Health Act: Will more rights lead to less wrongs?

This blog post was written by Judy Laing, Professor of Mental Health Law, Rights and Policy, University of Bristol Law School. 

The government published a White Paper in January 2021 outlining proposals to reform the Mental Health Act in England and Wales.  The government has consulted on these proposals and the consultation period closed a few weeks ago on 21st April 2021. We now await further announcements on the government’s plans following this consultation process. I am currently engaged in a parliamentary academic fellowship, working with Lizzie Parkin (a University of Bristol alumna) in the House of Commons Library Social Policy section. The Library offers an impartial research and information service for MPs and their staff. Part of my role involves working on research briefings to inform Members of Parliament on business in the House of Commons. Mental health law reform will no doubt be debated in parliament in the coming months and I have developed a detailed research briefing on the proposals in the White Paper to assist parliamentarians with that process.

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Westminster, an inside account

Engaging with policymakers, especially those in Westminster, can take many forms. Dr. Maria Pregnolato shares her recent experience and identifies how to improve the interaction between research and policy.

The what and when:

In April 2021, I was part of a ‘Pairing Scheme’ organised by the Royal Society with the ambition to, ‘give policymakers and research scientists an opportunity to experience each other’s worlds’.

Scientists with at least two years postdoctoral or industry research experience across STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Medicine and Maths) are eligible to apply (details here).

Typically, some 250 applications are shortlisted to 60 candidates from which 30 will be paired with Parliamentarians or Civil Servants. The selected researchers see first-hand how research findings can help inform policymaking, and how they can be involved.

Due to current circumstances, activity was online, beginning with a virtual ‘Week in Westminster’. This included a number of presentations, including ‘How Parliament Works’ given by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, and ‘How Select Committees Work’ hosted by the (Commons) Science and Technology Committee.

We also got to quiz the Chair of the Science and Technology Committee, Greg Clark, MP and hear from keynote speakers like Prof. Paul Monks, the Chief Scientific Advisor to the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). Our roundtable discussions included an exploration of the role for research and innovation in ‘levelling up’ the UK and in a ‘politics live’ session we watched Prime Minister’s Questions.

What else?

I was paired with Chi Onwurah, MP. She studied electrical engineering and was Head of Telecoms Technology at Ofcom before entered in Parliament in 2010. Chi brings her prior learning and experience to bear in her role as Shadow Minister for Digital, Science and Technology. I had previously met Chi when I was selected to present my research at ‘STEM for Britain’ in 2016 when a PhD student at Newcastle University, since she was, and still is, the MP for Newcastle.

I particularly enjoyed the Q&A session with Amanda Solloway, MP, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Minister for Science, Research and Innovation) at BEIS. She was very keen to stay in touch, to reach out as much to the research community(“please give us information”) and she spoke of a vision to give funding without complex process of grants, “which perhaps give no justice to good research not well-written”.

What did I learn?

  • Policymakers rely on experts and have scientists in the background to inform them.
  • When scientists inform, the responsibility is not on them: politicians make the decisions.
  • To have policy influence – communication is key: engage early and be persistent, and sharp, e.g., concise specific messages and tangible recommendations, three sentences max, and have examples that are easily understood.
  • MPs are more open and available than you might imagine.

What might improve the interaction between research and policy?

There are a few barriers between policy and research, notably:

  • The timeframe (years vs. days).
  • The language used.
  • Not enough opportunities like this scheme, and
  • No formal pathways of engagement.

Though if scientists and researchers embrace the opportunities that exist and seek to create other chances to make contact with policymakers, building networks, then relationships are established so that collaboration is easier – even at pace – so that research can inform both policy development and implementation.

Was it worthwhile?

Absolutely yes. I am grateful to Royal Society for this opportunity, and I very much recommend that anyone interested in impactful research considers an application or seeks to engage with policymakers in other ways.

To make science reproducible, focus on prevention not cure

This post was written by Marcus Munafò, University of Bristol, Malcolm Macleod, University of Edinburgh, they are on the steering group of the UK Reproducibility Network and Malcolm Skingle, director of academic liaison at GlaxoSmithKline. 

Improved upstream quality control can make research more effective, say Marcus Munafò and his colleagues.

Science relies on its ability to self-correct. But the speed and extent to which this happens is an empirical question. Can we do better?

The Covid pandemic has highlighted existing fault lines. We have seen the best of scientific research in the incredible speed at which vaccines have been developed and trialled. But we have also seen a deluge of Covid-related studies conducted in haste, often reflected in their less-than-ideal quality.

Peer review, the traditional way of assessing academic research, occurs only after work has been done. Can we identify indicators of research quality earlier on in the process when there is more opportunity to fix things? And if we did, could scientific knowledge be translated into societal benefit more rapidly and efficiently?

In many ways, the cultures and working practices of academia are still rooted in a 19th-century model of the independent scientist. Many research groups are effectively small, artisanal businesses using unique skills and processes.

This approach can yield exquisitely crafted output. But it also risks poor reproducibility and replicability—through, for instance, closed workflows, closed data and the use of proprietary file formats. Incentive structures based around assessing and rewarding individuals reinforce this, despite the welcome shift to team-based research activity, management, dissemination and evaluation.

Lessons from industry 

Research needs a more coherent approach to ensuring quality. One of us has previously argued that one way to achieve this would be to take the concept of quality control used in manufacturing and apply it to scientific research.

Pharmaceuticals are one R&D-intensive industry that has worked hard to improve quality control and ensure data integrity. Regulatory frameworks and quality-assurance processes are designed to make the results generated in the early stages of drug development more robust.

Indeed, some of the early concerns about the robustness of much academic research—described by some as the ‘reproducibility crisis’—emerged from pharmaceutical companies.

For regulated work, major pharmaceutical companies must be able to demonstrate the provenance of their data in fine detail. Standard operating procedures for routine work, and extended description of less common methods and experiments, makes comparisons between labs easier and improves traceability.

Data constitute the central element of robust research. The integrity of the systems through which data are collected, curated, analysed and presented is at the heart of research quality. National measurement institutes, including the UK’s National Physical Laboratory and National Institute for Biological Standards and Control have a role to play, sharing best practice and developing protocols that contribute to international standards.

How well these systems perform depends on many factors: training in data collection and management; transparency to allow scrutiny and error detection; documentation, so that work can be replicated; and standard operating procedures to ensure a consistent approach.

Red-tape review

Academic researchers are increasingly keen to learn from industry, and vice versa—to identify best practice and ways to implement higher standards of data integrity. University and industrial research are very different, but academia can learn lessons and adopt working practices that might serve to improve the quality of academic research in the biomedical and life sciences.

Learning from other sectors and organisations is a central theme of the UK Reproducibility Network. The network, established in 2019 as a peer-led consortium, aims to develop training and shape incentives through linked grassroots and institutional activity, and coordinated efforts across universities, funders, publishers and other organisations. This multilevel approach reduces the cost of development and increases interoperability, for example, as researchers move across groups and institutions.

Given the likely future pressures on the UK’s R&D budget, effective and efficient ways to bolster research quality will be essential to maximising the societal return on investment. Simply encouraging, or even mandating, new ways of working is not sufficient—many funders and journals have data-sharing policies, for example, but adherence is uneven and often unenforced.

A coordinated approach will require a clear model of research quality; buy-in from institutions, funders and journals; infrastructure; training; the right incentives; and ongoing evaluation. Coordinating all these elements will be challenging, but it is essential to improving research quality and efficiency. We need to take a whole-system approach.

This also applies to the independent review into research bureaucracy recently announced by the UK government, charged with identifying how to liberate researchers from admin. This is laudable—academia should certainly not be regulated in the same way as the pharmaceutical industry—but the review should recognise that an ounce of prevention can save a pound of cure.

Developing and deploying systems that improve research quality might increase efficiency and reduce research waste, as well as securing greater value for our national research effort.

This blog post was originally posted on Research Fortnight, you can read the original article here.

To address ethnic inequalities in COVID-19, we must acknowledge the multifaceted influence of racism

This blog post was written by Dr Saffron Karlsen, (Associate Professor in Sociology, University of Bristol). 

The evidence of ethnic inequalities in the number of COVID-related infections and deaths in the UK is compelling – yet discussions about how to address them remain somewhat simplistic. Dr Saffron Karlsen discusses five key issues that must be acknowledged if we are to establish a more complete picture of these inequalities and their drivers.

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Continuing confusion about Universal Credit and couples

This blog post was written by Marilyn Howard, Honorary Research Associate at the Law School and doctoral student in the School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol and Fran Bennett, Senior Research Fellow at the Department of Social Policy and Intervention, University of Oxford, and a Visiting Fellow at the University of Bath Institute for Policy Research (IPR).

On 9 March, the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee and the Commons Work and Pensions Committee held a joint oral evidence session. The Committees wanted to question the Government about its responses to the reports they had both published recently (see: Economic Affairs Committee report and Commons Work and Pensions Committee report) about Universal Credit (UC). Such a joint session is unprecedented, to our knowledge.

The witnesses were Will Quince MP, Minister for Welfare Delivery, and Neil Couling, Senior Responsible Owner for UC in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). One question was about the potential for separate payments of UC to each partner in couples, to replace the single payment to one account that is currently the default arrangement. This had been favoured by witnesses giving evidence to the Economic Affairs Committee, including both academics and nongovernmental organisations (and including Rita Griffiths from the ESRC-funded Universal Credit and Couples research project based at the University of Bath). But the Government has reiterated that it is unnecessary to introduce such separate payments.

These issues have been raised previously and discussion of them tends to reflect ongoing confusion about how couples manage their money; who currently receives UC in couples; and the Scottish Government’s intention to introduce separate payments. In order to try to clarify these topics, we draw here on our joint article and on our engagement and writing as active members of the Women’s Budget Group, which has carried out gender analysis of UC since it was first mooted.

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Management consultants in healthcare do more harm than good, but keep getting rehired – new research

This blog post was written by Andrew Sturdy, Chair in Organisation and Management, University of Bristol and Ian Kirkpatrick, Chair in Management, University of York. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license, read the original article here.

The use of management consultants has grown enormously in recent years. In the UK, consultancy brings in around £10 billion a year in fees across the public and private sectors. And while not totally recession-proof, the numbers grew in the run-up to Brexit and then COVID-19. (Remember test and trace? Consultants played a major role.)

Consulting firms can provide advice and extra resources at short notice and can be very effective for the right task and client. But their use often brings controversy, especially when public money is at stake, over the value of outsourcing, for instance. This raises a number of questions. Does consultancy bring improvements such as increased efficiency? If not, how can we explain its huge growth?

In the NHS, there is a remarkable lack of clarity and transparency over how much consultancy is used and with what effects. This falls within broader concerns noted in a recent National Audit Office report on procurement across public services.

In our ongoing research on management consultancy in the NHS, we have started to address these issues.

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

Contributors:

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.

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All Party Parliamentary Groups – an effective route to policy impact

Written by Alexia MacDonald, PolicyBristol Associate Social Sciences and Law, Arts and Humanities.

Have you ever wondered who else might be interested in your research, other than your academic colleagues and students?!

The Register of All Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs) is an extensive list of groups consisting of parliamentarians who share interests, knowledge and expertise. APPGs cover a diverse range of subjects from artificial intelligence to wrestling, and from historic vehicles to youth employment – so there is probably at least one that overlaps with your research area.

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