Research use in Parliament – the need for simple, concise, and relevant knowledge

Like many of my colleagues, I got into academia because I wanted to make a difference to the world. Indeed, this is the optimistic aim that I take to work each day. I was fortunate to play a role in an important research project on the use of research in Parliament. Led by UCL STEaPP and the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, the ESRC-funded project assessed how research was defined and used in Parliament.

We have produced an exciting report, which was launched today in Parliament. There was an interesting array of speakers, including Sir Mark Walport (now heading UKRI), two Members of Parliament (Dr Roberta Blackman-Woods MP, and Adam Afriyie, MP), Lord Willets, and Professor Tony McEnery (ESRC Research Director). One of the most satisfying things about being an academic is producing outputs that are shared with user communities. The report can be found here, but I want to focus on one key point – namely, the need for an incentive structure in academia that rewards evidence collation and the production of policy relevant recommendations. 


Sir Mark Walport concurred with one of the most important findings of the report, which illustrated that individuals in Parliament (MPs, Peers, staff) are more interested in what the body of evidence says, rather than the latest paper. People in Parliament are short of time, and therefore if evidence cannot be communicated to them quickly in a useable form, then it is unlikely to make a difference. It was concerning, therefore, to note that academic research was criticised by many people in Parliament for being hard to access, difficult to understand, poorly presented, too long-winded, and quite frankly irrelevant for current policy questions. From my perspective, it’s unsurprising that academic research is perceived in this way because the incentive structure placed before researchers (i.e. the REF) is poorly thought-out and treats policy impact as an afterthought. Chris Tyler, who co-led the UCL/POST project, talk about this here and we should seriously consider his proposals. Yes, impact is rewarded in the REF, but career progression is still often linked to the ability to produce 3-4* papers, which must be ‘world leading in terms of originality, significance, and rigour’.


‘Originality’ is a huge problem in that definition. Of course, part of academia is about making new discoveries. Yet, as shown by the responses of MPs, staff, and Peers in Parliament, the most useful research for policy-making is not the latest shiny, new paper, but rather an accessible review of the existing body of evidence. A shining example of how to do this is the ‘What Works in Conservation Science‘ initiative by Professor Bill Sutherland at Cambridge (Conservation Evidence). It’s a fantastic innovation, but probably not REF-able. This won’t matter to Bill as he’s already progressed to a senior level, but would an Early Career Researcher be able to get away with doing something so useful? I’ve also got experience, as have many colleagues, in conducting systematic reviews and pulling out a series of key actionable recommendations from these. Now, imagine my surprise in my first REF preparation meeting when I was told that my review papers were practically worthless. Instead, the strategy should be to focus on originality and innovative methodologies. So we are actively being encouraged to produce, as Dan Sarewitz would say, an excess of data, rather than trying to make the best use of data we already have.


As I write on, do keep in mind that policy-makers in Parliament want simple, accessible summaries, not complicated, incomprehensible pieces of writing. This pleased me enormously. In my undergraduate course, I had thought that I wasn’t clever enough to understand the complicated ways in which some (and it’s only some) human geographers write. Each day, however, I am given more ammunition to say that such a style of writing isn’t clever at all. For example, I’ve worked with farmers who just want you to say what you mean, instead of talking in riddles. Dr Roberta Blackman-Woods MP made a similar point as she remembered a recent meeting with researchers in which the evidence was presented in a complex, inaccessible manner. Policy-makers and other users of research really don’t care about the latest new word that you’ve dreamt up (and gosh I came across quite a few long made-up words in my Geography course).

The REF meeting reminded me of an old interview in which an academic accused me of doing consultancy, rather than academia, because my work was too policy relevant. In contrast, he described his work in a much fancier way. It also reminded me of a former colleague who used the phrase ‘policy relevant’ as a criticism on dissertations (because it wasn’t clever enough). In the first case, I didn’t get the job – with hindsight it was probably a poor idea to reply with ‘if you’re happy doing academic research that is theoretical, is published in journals that no one outside of your discipline reads, and makes no difference to the world, then fine, but I’m not. That is not my definition of academia.’ The interview didn’t last much longer, but it was fun at the time.

At the risk of losing my optimistic mindset, this system is madness. To illustrate why, let me tell you about a new paper that I’m writing. It’s for a Geography journal and it was originally aimed at providing tangible advice to developers of new technologies. The paper, however, doesn’t do this any more. After being advised by a former colleague that I needed to ‘make it less useful and more theoretical’ for the intended audience (and more REF-able), I then wrote a far less useful, but more fancy-sounding piece. This is going to be more REF-friendly, and I’ve used some pretty big words in it; but what was the point in making it less useful to the world just to satisfy REF requirements? To the outside viewer, such as the taxpayer, there was no point at all and it isn’t something that I intend to do again anytime soon.

The clear finding of the report is that people in Parliament want accessible summaries of the evidence. They don’t want to be bombarded with the latest single studies, and they aren’t particularly interested if you’ve invented a crazy methodology or new word just to make your work seem more exciting. Rather, they want an impartial overview of the body of evidence about a topic, which provides relevant recommendations. So my advice to the academic community, particularly in the social sciences, is the next time you write a paper, just say what you mean as simply as possible. Don’t just criticise a grant application for not having an innovative methodology or not being theoretically elegant, make sure you also consider whether the project is likely to be useful to the world. A natural science proposal, for example, wouldn’t dream of proposing an innovative methodology if an existing standardised methodology existed, so why the obsession with new methods in social science? Because if it is going to be useful and policy relevant, surely that is more important? At the end of the day, we are all in academia to make a difference to the world.


Amazing places to work…

I look forward to each day that I’m at the University of East Anglia. Although the campus is a little out of town, which makes it a bit tricky to get to via train (which I’m on now), it’s most definitely worth it when you get there. Being out of town, the campus is able to incorporate fantastic green spaces, which definitely improves the well-being of staff and students. I can’t think of a better campus in the UK for providing access to nature (although I have been to some other good ones e.g. Streatham campus at Exeter, Bangor University with the views of the Menai Straits and Snowdonia, and York has a pretty cool lake too!). Do use the comments section to tell me about places that I’ve missed off the list – The Parks at Oxford is nice too, but as a Cambridge alumnus I try not to tell people. I always used to love my walk into work at Cambridge along the Backs, which was beautiful, but not particularly great for birdwatching (the odd Kingfisher aside!). I’ve included some pictures of the UEA Broad and river below, also including one of Cambridge for reasons of pure nostalgia.

When at UEA, I try to walk around the Broad and along the river each day at lunch. I’m told otters are a regular sighting along the river, but my lunchtime visits are hardly the best time to see them, so I haven’t yet! Apparently there are some terrapins in the Broad too, which really shouldn’t be there! UEA’s 145 hectare campus has many varied habitats, including five County Wildlife Sites, and is home to over 5,700 species. I think we’re also famous for our Rabbits, which aren’t hard to find! One of the tasks for Geographers in Freshers Week was to take a photo of a Rabbit, and I don’t think that many teams struggled to do so!

We do have an envious rare bird list for a university campus! Last month I found a beautiful Firecrest along the river, and the following day a colleague found a Yellow-Browed Warbler, which seem to grow in number in the UK every Autumn. Flocks of Brambling are beginning to appear now, alongside Fieldfare and Redwing, as Winter begins to set in. I’m going to keep my eyes peeled for a mega-rarity over the next few years, which certainly seems possible at UEA.

For all those who love nature, UEA is really a great place to work at! My office is less than five minutes walk from the Broad so there really is no excuse not to take half an hour each day walking around it! It always manages to keep my cheery, particularly as I see so many colleagues with binoculars and cameras; so I definitely don’t feel out of place!

I’m sure readers of this blog will find aspects of their own campus inspiring, not only because it is good for wildlife, but perhaps because they are located in vibrant, busy, cosmopolitan cities. There must be some amazing campuses outside the UK, so do let me know about them! I think one of the reasons why some people love UEA is because of the architecture. The Ziggurats are pretty cool, and the concrete raised walkways around the campus make you feel that you’re walking in the sky in some sort of futuristic sci-fi movie. One problem, however, is that it really does all look the same to me, so it’s a challenge to navigate when you’re new. I’m still not sure about the Gormley figures on top of the buildings, but then I’ve never understood modern art!

Writing about inspiring places to work has set my Geographical mind racing to think of the best fieldwork locations that I’ve visited so far in my academic career. The ability to travel, either for fieldwork or to conferences, is a real highlight of an academic career. And us Geographers are fond of a little [a lot of] travel! More in the next blog!

Initial feedback – a renewed sense of purpose

Yesterday when I launched this blog, I was a little nervous about what the reaction would be. Based on a few messages received since then, today I have an even stronger sense of purpose. The Postgraduate Forum of the Royal Geographical Society have asked to feature this blog next week to show their members that academia can be an exciting and fulfilling career – I’m now under pressure to stay happy! Also, a PhD student sent me the following message:

The new blog is such a great idea! The other day I met with a mentor of mine who said ‘I don’t think there’s any other career [but academia] where there’s such a systematic culture of complaining’ and I was pretty worried by this. I can only speak of my experience as a postgrad student, I know many things change at post doc level, but if it weren’t for the joy of academia I’d have left a long time ago!
Now would I say that there is a ‘systematic culture of complaining in academia’ – well as a trained social scientist I have to conclude that I don’t have the data available to pass judgement. I’ve only worked with a tiny proportion of academics in relatively few institutions. Based on these limited observations, however, the contention that academics love to complain hasn’t yet been disproved to me. At coffees, or on social media, for example there does seem to be lots of complaining going on; of course, sometimes quite rightly and we should complain if we have cause to do so. Yet, I have been witness to many conversations, both in real life and on Twitter, where academics seem to aspire to out-do each other in the complaining stakes. I used to feel like I had to join in, but now I usually refuse to, much to the shock of colleagues!
The purpose of the blog is to highlight the positive aspects of academic life. One thought for readers this week – the next time you’re having a Twitter conversation or a real-life conversation (although Twitter is real-life, but you know what I mean!) with colleagues, how about trying to out-do each other in terms of positivity? Why not share a personal achievement of the week or tell others why you have reason to be positive in your academic career at the moment? Or why not share a positive experience of dealing with a student and the sense of achievement that comes with watching them improve? My own view is that if we go into academia expecting to complain, then the whole thing becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and you’ll learn to see the negatives before the positives. I hope this blog goes some way to showing fellow academics, post-docs, and students that it is absolutely OK to share positive news in public – and we shouldn’t feel like we can’t.
More in the next few days. This weekend I’m spending both days finishing off a paper on Integrated Farm Management because my co-authors are waiting! Heaven forbid I should have to work on both days of the weekend, but I really enjoy writing, so I don’t see it as something to moan about! I’ll take a break on Hampstead Heath later (see pictures taken yesterday, the colours on the trees are breathtaking at the moment) and then have the horse racing from Cheltenham/Lingfield on in the background later.

The road to academia

I was offered my first permanent academic position by the University of East Anglia in September 2017. The seven years of postgraduate and postdoctoral research preceding it had left me in no doubt that I wanted to pursue a career in academia. Looking back, however, I wouldn’t have been so inspired to select an academic career if two different groups of people had not provided encouragement, and quite frankly, endless joy.

Although many kind people have helped me over the years, five people in particular stand out as having provided the optimistic view of academia that I needed to convert me to the profession. The first two, Dr Harriet Allen and Dr Molly Warrington, were my academic advisers at Homerton College, Cambridge during my Geography undergraduate degree. After a maddening day in my first exam term, where I tried my best to revise Foucault and all things Governmentality, I sent Harriet an email saying that I wanted to change to History. Although she said that the decision was mine alone, her reply suitably convinced me that Geography was the more exciting degree, and so I happily stayed. I was pleased to leave Foucault behind, not knowing how his work would provide much hilarity later in life when I encountered one of his biggest fans (Esha!). At the start of my third year, Molly approached me and asked about my career plans. Slightly doubting my ability, I raised the prospect of further study, something which Molly wholeheartedly agreed with and she did everything possible to encourage me further.

Special mentions go, however, to my PhD supervisor, Professor Susan Owens, and my first Post-doc PI, Professor Bill Sutherland. Both had different styles, one critical, but encouraging, and the other more laid back, but just as demanding (I’ll let them decide which one is which if they read this!). However, both were always adamant that I should continue in academia, and I was constantly inspired by the work of both. In every meeting with Bill, for example, he would ask me how we were going to save the world today, an optimistic conservation attitude that is desperately needed.

We should appreciate all those mentors in academia who provide encouragement and support for their students, as it is so important to have positive role models. Finally, I should mention Dr Catherine Sumnall, who was the yardstick that I measured myself against when I started being an academic adviser to Geography students at Gonville and Caius College. Her unrelenting positivity, and passion for her students (that saw her reply to emails in the middle of the night) made me a better adviser.

But the most important people who convinced me that academia was going to be rewarding and joyous were the Geography students at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, who I advised for two years. A picture from a Geography board game night is shown at the top of this post! The ability to teach and inspire students is surely the best thing about academia, and it is the one thing that always keeps a smile on my face (well only if the students want to learn!). During my first post-doc, I was offered the opportunity to be Director of Studies for Geography at Caius. Although I was excited to advise students for the first time, I did not expect everything to go smoothly. But largely it did – true, the students were demanding at times (quite rightly so!) and there was lots of extra work to do – but I got to advise such a fantastic, talented group of students, which left me in no doubt that academia was for me. Teaching them undoubtedly improved my well-being, and I got some rather great presents over the course of my time there – boxes of fudge each Christmas (thanks Tamara! thanks all! – I’ll miss it this Christmas!), a mug saying ‘Best DoS ever’ complete with a diagram of Rockstrom’s planetary boundaries and a storm surge (which one student had defined as a trophic cascade in their exam – see photo at bottom), a Geography trivia game (thanks Esha), a printed T-shirt saying ‘keep calm and spot birds’ (thanks all) and some rather large cards! And I think Al gave me a bag of Minstrels – thanks! Leaving Caius was very sad, but experiencing the thrill of teaching them had provided the incentive that I needed to apply for permanent jobs.

Now we’ve got to the present day, I aim to bring weekly or monthly stories of my academic life, and hope to inspire others to follow me into academia. This is important as we can’t risk losing some of our talented students or post-docs if we fail to show them the benefits of pursuing an academic career. Working in Bill Sutherland’s Conservation Science group, and teaching the Caians (term for Caius students), convinced me of the need to provide an optimistic vision. In Bill’s group now there are incredible PhD students, such as Eleanor Tew, Hannah Wauchope, and Benno Simmons, who might want to go into academia. Some of the Caians too might be interested – Hannah, Esha, Adam (and perhaps others). So if this blog manages to convince just one amazing student (wherever they are) to continue into academia, enabling them to drive the research of the future, then it will be a worthwhile venture. Moving forwards too I may look into hosting guest blogs if anyone in academia has a positive story to share!