Policy Lunchbox: improving the use of social science evidence in Parliament

Social science allows us to study how individuals and societies fit together, helping to explain how society works and how it might be improved. Social science research evidence is often applicable to policy making, yet does not tend to be presented to parliamentarians in any systematic way. A new social science section of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology was created last year to improve this, helping POST go beyond science and technology to also cover areas such as crime and education, where there is a large amount of available social science evidence. Dr Abbi Hobbs and Dr Caroline Kenny from POST came along to Policy Lunchbox last week to tell us more.

Abbi and Caroline began by introducing the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST). Set up 25 years ago to help MPs and Peers understand technical issues in science and technology, POST now has a wider remit to support and advance the use of research evidence in Parliament. POST is overseen by a board of MPs, Peers, parliamentary staff, and non-parliamentarians, and works closely with the external research community in the production and peer-review of its regular POSTnotes. In addition to these short briefing notes, POST also provides support to select committees and organises events to bring individuals together on particular topics.

A social science section of POST was launched in September 2013 with sufficient funding from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and UCL for 2 advisers and 15 Fellows over 3 years. With overarching aims to provide parliamentarians with more access to social science research evidence and support the use of research evidence across Parliament, the new section hopes to ensure that social science research evidence is integrated within all POST activity.

The new section also aims to provide support to other parts of Parliament that deal with research evidence. Training in research methods for clerks of the House of Commons and House of Lords libraries and select committees is currently underway, allowing them to critically appraise evidence from a range of sources and then apply these skills when evaluating sources for written briefings. POST is also hoping to adapt this training for MPs, Peers, and their researchers.

A major role for the social science section of POST over the next two years will be to carry out a research programme to assess the use of research evidence by parliamentarians and parliamentary staff. It is hoped that the results of this study will highlight where changes could be made to strengthen the use of evidence in scrutinising the work of Government. The main research questions are:

  • To what extent is research evidence used, and how, if at all, does this vary across the different functions of scrutiny, debate and legislation?
  • What factors (processes, mechanisms and culture) shape the use of research evidence?
  • What is the role of POST in facilitating the use of research evidence across Parliament?

This will not just focus on academic research, but will assess sources of evidence available to all those working in Parliament. Through case studies, interviews, literature reviews, and mapping, types of research evidence used and the attitudes and approaches towards this will be assessed. In addition, the extent to which researchers engage with Parliament will be analysed, and interactions between individuals monitored.

The addition of social science to POST should be welcomed. POST’s assessment of the use of research evidence in Parliament will provide an interesting insight into how different types of research are utilised across scrutiny, debate, and legislation. As the evidence capacity of Government increases, it is important that Parliament is able to keep up to retain its role in scrutiny.