Strengthening the Links Between Academic Research and the National Assembly for Wales

It is widely accepted that academic research has an important role to play in policy formation and scrutiny, but there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ way of making this happen. The National Assembly for Wales (aka the Welsh Assembly) is involved with some exciting initiatives to make sure that evidence gets to the politicians who need it at the right time.

Building on a previous blog, ‘How does research get into the National Assembly for Wales?’ we explore some of the main ways that the Welsh Assembly and academic researchers can keep in touch.

The National Assembly for Wales is the organisation that holds the Welsh Government to account for their decisions and actions. The image of the Assembly that springs most readily to mind is perhaps that of a debate in the iconic Senedd, where Assembly Members discuss legislation or give the First Minister a grilling. But a lot more work goes on behind the scenes to keep the show on the road, often carried out by clerks and researchers.

Indeed, the Welsh Assembly has its own dedicated Research Service that performs a number of roles. A large part of the Research Service’s work revolves around Committees. These are formalised groups of Assembly Members who regularly meet to discuss specific policy issues. You can see the different Committees on the Welsh Assembly’s website, here. Committees look into Government spending, examine policies and discuss any new laws that the Government is proposing. For every investigation into a particular issue, known as an inquiry, the Research Service conducts background research and will provide the Assembly Members who sit on the Committee with a briefing document for each meeting.

Aside from briefings for Committees, the Research Service answers impromptu requests for information from Assembly Members, known as enquiries (not to be confused with Committee inquiries). These can spring from particular issues that constituents are facing, or more national-level concerns that aren’t currently being dealt with by Committees. The Research Service also carries out proactive work and investigates topical issues that don’t relate to a specific inquiry or enquiry but that are deemed important to discuss, including issues that are to be debated in the Senedd. Outputs are published on the Research Service’s blog, In Brief, in the form of concise blog posts summarising these issues.

The most visible way that academic researchers engage with the Welsh Assembly is by providing evidence for Committee Inquiries. Usually, this involves researchers keeping track of what topics the Committees are looking into and, when something relevant to their research comes up, responding to a call for written evidence. The Assembly website provides a breakdown of how to do this here. Academics use their knowledge of a particular subject in order to respond to these calls.  If the written evidence is deemed particularly relevant, the academic might get invited to present their research and answer questions at a Committee meeting. Alternatively, for researchers who are at an earlier stage of their career, another way of getting involved in the policy process are the three-month internships that the Research Service offers to six to eight PhD students each year.

In addition to the traditional mechanisms that researchers engage with the policy process, the Assembly is trialling new ways of strengthening their links with the academic community. One of these initiatives, known as the Academic Fellowship Scheme, involves senior academics working with the Research Service on a specific topic that relates to their area of expertise. The Scheme has been running for just over a year, and six academics have been involved. They’ve contributed to activities as wide ranging as producing a report on developing the north Wales economy, gathering evidence on dementia, and looking into the Welsh Government’s programme for Bovine TB eradication. For a detailed look at who has been involved and what they’ve done, see this In Brief blog post.  The Assembly is planning to invite applications for the next round of the Fellowship Scheme later in 2018.

The Research Service has also been taking part in a UK-wide trial of a “matchmaking” service between academic researchers and policymakers, called the Evidence Information Service. Although still in the early data-collection and trial stage in Wales, the aim of the Service is to create a database of academics, who are happy to be called upon to provide evidence for Assembly Members at short notice. The team behind the Evidence Information Service have also been working with the UK and Scottish Parliaments and the Northern Ireland Assembly in order to create a resource that best complements the existing work of their respective Research Services.

However, until the database is up and running researchers who would like to be involved with the policy-making process may need to find alternative strategies for making themselves known to the Assembly. One approach that shouldn’t be overlooked, despite its simplicity, is contacting the Research Service with an explanation of one’s credentials and area of expertise. The best person to get in touch with is the relevant subject area specialist, and their contact details can be found here. The Research Service will then keep the researcher “on file” and get in touch when their expertise is needed.

The Research Service is always looking to engage with academics in order to improve the Assembly’s work of scrutinising the Welsh Government. Equally, researchers are looking for more ways to get involved with policy-making, not least given the increasing requirements to demonstrate the real-world impact of their research. The initiatives above aim to capitalise on this mutual willingness and to strengthen the channel between the Welsh Assembly and academic research.