Yesterday I attended an event at the House of Commons on Brexit research and how it could be used to inform policy. This was jointly organised by the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology and the Economic and Social Research Council, the latter of which is funding the UK in a Changing Europe programme, which in turn funding our project on the implications of Brexit for fisheries policy. On the one hand it was a good way to find out about other Brexit research taking place. Crucially, however, it was an opportunity to interact with parliamentarians and parliamentary staff, and discuss how our research could be used to inform their work.
The event kicked off with a couple of keynote addresses on the importance of research to inform policy debate. Participants were then given a choice. They could either attend one of a number of parallel sessions featuring presentations by each of the projects, grouped together around broad themes. Or they could circulate around a set of stalls where they could chat to project team members about what they were doing. I was set to work on one of the stalls while my other colleagues on the project did the presentation.
The overall number of people attending the event seemed high – from what I could tell it was standing room only for the keynote addresses at the start of the event. However by virtue of there being concurrent sessions, there were fewer people when it came to looking round the project stalls. I was at our project’s stall for 1.5 hours, but during this time I had only a handful people come up to me. Other projects’ stalls were also receiving low patronage, although levels of interest did vary by topic. Now, that’s not to say there wasn’t any interest in our project at all. There was, and I spoke to people with a specific interest in fisheries policy. It’s just that I was just expecting more.
This highlights one of the main challenges to engaging with policy makers and practitioner community. We were fortunate enough to have the event organised for us, for it to be hosted on the parliamentary estate and with the full support of the parliamentary authorities. And yet the overall number of attendees seemed low. This may be down to my unrealistic expectations of the event. But it also reflects the reality of pressures on other people’s time.
I know from my time as a practitioner in local government that politicians (even local councillors) are busy people. The same applies to the staff supporting their work, who all have day jobs to be getting on with. The pressures on parliamentarians’ time are obviously far greater. And, inevitably, the political priorities of the day take over – the event was taking place at roughly the same time as the urgent debate on sexual harassment in parliament, which has attracted much media attention over the last few days.
After brief reflection I’m not sure how I would have organised the event differently to overcome this. However, there was something that could have been done to better engage those who were attending. While footfall around the stalls was low (at least compared to my expectations), those getting the most attention seemed to have hit a basic formula: A simple message or research finding which could easily be condensed onto an A1 poster / infographic, which could be easily seen from a couple of metres away. Posters usually focused on a single but interesting finding from a just a small part of the overall project. This then acted as a hook, giving researchers an opportunity to go into further detail about their projects.
Any engagement with practitioners therefore needs to reflect the realities of time pressures they face. Messages need to be simple, to the point and easily digestible in a short amount of time. Conclusions need to be clear and not hidden away amongst some of the features that an academic audience might be expecting to see (such as a comprehensive literature review or detailed outline of methodology). Posters and infographics represent one way to achieve this clarity (Simon Usherwood’s infographics on the Article 50 negotiations are a good example).
I have used posters in the past to communicate my research in the past, and was a finalist in a poster competition on EU regional policy jointly organised by the Regional Studies Association and the European Commission. While I was teaching the Politics of the European Union module at Keele, I got the students to produce a poster on an EU institution (much to their frustration). The task is not as easy as the students initially think, but the experience at yesterday’s event vindicates my belief that the they should be able to communicate something complex (such as the EU’s institutional structure) in a succinct and engaging way.
So, I’m an fan of poster presentations, and observations from yesterday’s event showed they can be useful in communicating research to practitioners. Which only raises questions about why I didn’t think to follow my own advice for this event. In assuming it would be busier, I hadn’t given that much thought to how I would actually engage those who attended.
Now, my overall assessment is the event was a success. It was well organised, a fantastic opportunity to communicate our research to policy-makers and the contacts made will be valuable for our project and future engagement activities. But, with the benefit of hindsight, a little more effort into thinking how I would engage those that attended may have yielded a few more contacts and promoted our research beyond those with a specific interest in fisheries policy.