The Forum joined forces with the Institute for Government to deliver a programme of work on improving the use of evidence in policymaking.
Science and evidence have a crucial role in shaping policy that improves people’s lives, yet policymakers often struggle to access and use evidence in a timely and effective way.
That’s why The Forum, Imperial’s policy engagement programme, worked with the renowned think tank Institute for Government to explore how evidence can be made more easily available for government to design effective policies and Parliament to hold ministers to account.
It’s crucial that policymakers have easy access to the science that underpins the policies they are working on. Professor Nick Jennings Vice-Provost (Research and Enterprise)
The programme of work consisted of three events and a report on the use of evidence in government and Parliament.
A public panel discussion on using evidence in government and Parliament was held, which also launched the report by The Forum and the Institute for Government on key learnings from the programme of work.
The panel included Chi Onwurah MP, Shadow Minister for Science, Research & Digital and Greg Clark MP, Chair of the Science and Technology Select Committee and former Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
Professor Mary Ryan, Vice-Dean (Research), at Imperial’s Faculty of Engineering, gave opening remarks, noting the importance of evidence and the role of academics in communicating that evidence to policymakers.
Professor Ryan, who leads Imperial's new Transition to Zero Pollution initiative, which is about taking a systems approach to tackling pollution in all its forms, argued that "to address climate change we need bold policymaking as well as ambitious science."
During the panel discussion, Chi Onwurah MP praised Imperial for its role in responding to the pandemic and emphasised the importance of the topic of evidence in policymaking.
The MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central called for an independent governmental evidence verification or summarising service in order to support MPs and the Shadow Cabinet in framing the right questions and scrutinising what is presented as evidence. She also called for better training for MPs in using statistical evidence as well as identifying misinformation.
Greg Clark MP used Imperial as a case study in the "value of direct science and communication," claiming that the College had done a real service to the familiarity of science in politics.
"Our default should be that evidence is put out there for scrutiny. Improving the ability of politicians to act on evidence is very important," he continued.
The former Cabinet Minister went on to point out that when evidence is not available, such as in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important for politicians to exercise judgement in advance of the evidence arriving. He gave examples of waiting too long for evidence for lockdown and wearing face masks.
Tom Sasse, Senior Researcher at the Institute for Government, completed the panel, and drew from his work researching the links between academia and government, noting that the definition of evidence is different for the two sectors. He also talked about the need for politicians to combine rigorous evidence with personal stories and called for more clarity on the ownership of evidence within government departments, which can often "fall through the cracks."
Proposals for better use of evidence in policymaking
The report, published by The Forum and the Institute for Government, puts forward a number of proposals on better use of evidence in government and Parliament, including:
- Government needs better ways to benchmark evidence use
- More clarity over responsibility for evidence use in departments
- Better understanding and communication of risk to avoid blurring the line between advice and decision-making
- Government and Parliament should reach beyond personal relationships and the ‘usual suspects’ when accessing external evidence
- Select committees could be more proactive in identifying weaknesses in the evidence underlying policy
Roundtable discussions on better evidence for MPs and civil servants
The Forum and Institute for Government also hosted two roundtables prior to the panel discussion. The first event was held for senior civil servants, and attended by Professor Nick Jennings, Vice-Provost (Research and Enterprise) at Imperial College London and former Chief Scientific Adviser for National Security in government.
At the roundtable, senior officials from Defra, Department for Transport, Government Office for Science and others discussed the key barriers for academics trying to engage with policymakers and how civil servants can make sure evidence gets heard by decision-makers.
A second event looked at how MPs can effectively use evidence. It included panelists Sir Norman Lamb (Chair, Science and Technology Committee 2017-2019), Gemma Buckland (Senior Committee Specialist), Dame Diana Johnson MP (Chair, APPG on Haemophilia and Contaminated Blood) and Dr Grant Hill-Cawthorne (Head of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology).
Professor Nick Jennings gave opening remarks, before opening the discussion around how MPs can draw on external expertise, data and analysis to effectively carry out their role in scrutinising government.
"For effective policymaking, it’s critical that the country’s leading researchers understand what the key questions and issues for policymakers are, and it’s similarly crucial that policymakers have easy access to the science that underpins the policies they are working on and scrutinising. The Forum wants to create these relationships," said Professor Jennings.
The Forum: Connecting our researchers with policymakers
The Forum is Imperial College London’s policy engagement programme, connecting Imperial researchers with policymakers to discover new thinking on global challenges. Please get in touch if you would like more information: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Imperial College London is grateful for the support of the UKRI Strategic Priorities Fund for carrying out this work.
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