Westminster versus the Lab

Evidence-based policy sounds like a common sense idea which no-one could object to, yet the reality of translating research into policy is full of complexities. A couple of months ago, I had the chance to shadow Cambridge MP (and Clare Fellow) Dr Julian Huppert for a day. It was only short time, but I thought I’d share some of my general impressions which perhaps illustrate the gulf between Westminster and the laboratory.

The most obvious thing to note was the pace and busyness of the day. By the time I entered Portcullis House, Julian had been at a breakfast meeting and a couple more, and was just embarking on an interview. This schedule continued throughout the day, with one-on-one meetings in his office, committee meetings in the Houses of Parliament, photo-calls, interviews on College Green, and tweeting (lots of tweeting). When I left at about 6pm Julian was heading on to a dinner meeting. I don’t mean to suggest that academic researchers are not also busy, but to point to the difference in busyness. Researchers fill their days with a narrow focus on specific questions, accumulating expertise over months and years. Almost every meeting Julian did was on a different topic with very different people: the Home Affairs Select Committee, the All-Party Cycling Group, special advisors, immigration issues, interview with East Anglia TV on the Budget (I, rather accidentally, ended up being around on Budget Day). I was with Julian all day and there wasn’t much of chance to develop an in-depth conversation with him.

Research findings in their entirety are typically lengthy, nuanced, complex, and full of provisional clauses. MPs do not have time for this full version. They bounce from meeting to meeting, with different names and different subjects and different opinions. If research is to grab their attention and stick, it must be communicated succinctly and with a clear outline of its relevance and applicability. Remember also that only two MPs have scientific training up to PhD level – a somewhat troubling fact in itself, but one that points to the need for clarity in communication.

The second thing that struck me most was the rapidly changing agenda and importance of message in the face of this. Julian’s research assistant reckoned that between forty and sixty percent of Julian’s day was spent responding to things which had appeared on the desk that day, things which he hadn’t known about the day before. The cut-and-thrust of politics and the 24 hour news cycle mean that MPs spend much of their time in reacting, which makes it difficult to develop many long-term agendas. Only a few can be focused upon, and they must be backed up by a simple message.

I expressed to Julian my occasional frustration with the recurrence of certain stock phrases in politics, the seemingly shallow answers to many questions. In answer he argued that any deviation from a well-known and defensible message ran the risk of dragging the conversation into new areas which were not necessarily productive, and of overcomplicating the values and motivations which lay behind certain decisions. To get the message across, you pick the three most important points of your argument and make them again and again. Media time is so precious that there is no time to digress into subtleties and nuances which do not directly and obviously support your case. It reminded me of a scene in the American political drama West Wing in which Leo McGarry is practicing for a vice-Presidential debate. Asked a question on a policy he endorses, he begins by describing the argument against it. He intends to then counter these points, make the argument for the policy, and produce a stronger conclusion for it. But before he knows it, his time has run out and he’s found that all he’s done is make the opponent’s argument for them. This situation is frustrating, yes, but it’s political reality.

If you want research findings to make it into the public discussion of a policy, think of an elevator pitch: that magical 30 second window in which to get across a message. Practice, perfect, and repeat. A lot. First frame the issue which it bears on, then point to the relevance of the research to the issue, and then illustrate the research findings and their meaning for the issue at stake. MPs don’t have the time or training to sift through and interpret research which might be relevant. Civil servants may have the expertise, but their resources are stretched. The network of Chief Scientific Advisers do provide an effective avenue for bringing expertise into government, but they are bound by their posts as government employees. If you think some research has a bearing on policy issues, don’t be quiet about it, don’t expect the transition from lab to Westminster to happen passively. MPs serve the public. If they’re busy, condense the research. If they’re driven by one or two issues and messages, tell them how the research applies. And if they spend most of their time reacting, give them something to react to. In other words, engage! Communication is key. If you think that you are your colleagues are qualified to speak on an issue, speak on it, and speak to whoever will listen. The only way evidence will travel from the lab to Westminster is if someone takes it there.

Further reading: A couple of articles written by policy-makers and scientists which ask each group to bear in mind some salient points about the other. For all those Buzzfeed fans, they’re written in list form, and are concise and useful. 1) Top 20 things scientists need to know about policy-making 2) Top 20 things politicians need to know about science

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