About the scheme
Policy decisions that take scientific evidence into account are critical for dealing with the biggest issues we face, like climate change and inequality. An increasing proportion of decision making in the UK is taking place at a local level, through councils rather than central Government. MPs are provided with scientific advice from The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, the House of Commons Library, Chief Scientific Advisers, a range of scientific advisory committees, and academics on placements with policy teams, however no equivalent support exists at council level.
The Evidence Support Initiative pairs science researchers with their local councils, providing on-demand advice on scientific issues to fit the needs of councillors, and perhaps also passing on the skills to find and use scientific information. The researchers aren't there to advocate and don't sit as part of the council, their role is simply to help find relevant information that might otherwise not be accessible/discoverable by councils, and to broaden the range of information that the councils have available to use. Meanwhile, the researchers learn how local Government works, and pick up skills for making their own work more usable by policy makers.
Progress to date
Pilot placements 2021
We were awarded £1,000 seed funding from Civic Square’s Dream Fund to pilot placements for scientific researchers to work with their local councils. The pilot began in March 2021 and ended in June 2021, and full pilot write-up is available.
Co-design phase 2021-2022
We were awarded £6,995 funding from UKRI in November 2021 to bring a cross-party group of councillors and scientists together to decide how a national roll-out could happen. This phase of the project was run in collaboration with:
Dr. Vivek Nityananda (Newcastle University)
Dr. Jo Garrett (European Centre for Environment and Human Health)
Councillor Christine Leiser (non-party affiliated, Mevagissey Parish Councillor)
Councillor Martyn Alvey (Conservative Party, Cornwall Unitary Council)
Mark Williams (Falmouth Town Council clerk, Labour council).
Our co-design team included 8 researchers from science and social science backgrounds, and 10 council representatives (including the collaborators listed above):
Councillor Stephen Cunnah (Labour Party, Cardiff City Council)
Councillor Susan Elsmore (Labour Party, Cardiff City Council)
Councillor Maroof Raouf (Green Party, Sheffield City Council)
Councillor Abtisam Mohamed (Labour Party, Sheffield City Council)
Councillor Sam Underwood (non-party-affiliated, Powick Parish Council)
Isabelle Risner (Cornwall Association of Local Councils)
Stuart Roden (Cornwall Association of Local Councils)
Alexandra North (PhD student)
Emily Taylor (PhD student)
Jennifer Watts (PhD student)
Dr. Matt Jones (Associate research fellow)
Dr. Julian Donald (Research fellow)
Dr. Sarah Crowley (Lecturer)
You can see the Miro board from the main co-design session. The outputs from the co-design workshop, together with our experience from running the pilot pairings, were used to make a draft plan for how the Evidence Support Initiative could be expanded nationally. The plan was reviewed by our co-design group, then passed to a wider stakeholder group for broader oversight. You can see the current status of this process on our Miro stakeholder mapping board. This stage remains open - so far, thoughts have been received, and many incorporated, from:
Dr Jonathan Wentworth, Environment Adviser, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology
Professor Grant Hill-Cawthorne, Director of Research, House of Commons Library
Grace Fisher, Community Organiser/ Mobiliser, The Climate Coalition
Dr Alice Hague, Social, Economic and Geographical Sciences, The James Hutton Institute
Dr Jane Parry, Departmental Head of Research: Organisational Behaviour and HRM, Director of the Centre for Research on Work and Organisations, Southampton Business School, University of Southampton
Peter Lefort, Green Futures Network Officer, University of Exeter and Co-chair, Transition Network
Chris Borg, Policy manager, National Association of Local Councils
Henry Butt, Local Government Association
Dr. Charlotte Brand, Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Sheffield
Dr Sarah Foxen, Knowledge Exchange Lead, Knowledge Exchange Unit, UK Parliament
Sarah Chaytor, Director of UCL Public Policy, Co-Investigator on Capabilities in Academic-Policy Engagement, Co-founder, Universities Policy Engagement Network
Summary of the Evidence Support Initiative roll out plan
Placements will be available for science/social science researchers (PhD-Professor) with their local councils (of any kind, from Parish to Unitary councils, and including council staff such as clerks). The placements will last 6-12 months, with the expected working time being 1-2 days/month. We propose funding the researchers to participate. The placements will be supported through group training online, a forum for peer contact and expanding networks, check-lists to ensure everything is in place, and one-to-one support. Transparency is critical; the researcher-council pairs will be encouraged to use open documentation so the councils and communities can follow the progress of the placements, and a summary of each placement will be published on the Evidence Support Initiative website. The appetite for this scheme appears to be very strong, however routes to funding a national roll-out are unclear.
Details of the Evidence Support Initiative roll out plan
Benefits to the Participants
- Exposing researchers to local issues, allowing them and their research to become more deeply embedded within their communities, and encouraging civic participation.
- Providing researchers with direct experience into how local Government works, indirectly helping them understand how to make their research more useful for policy makers, and perhaps encouraging them to stand for council themselves.
- Encouraging researchers’ confidence that their existing skills are applicable to a wide range of problems and sectors, and that they can use these skills to make valuable contributions to their communities.
- Providing councils and individual councillors/clerks with expert support for climate and environmental issues, enabling evidence-based decision making.
- Providing councils and individual councillors/clerks with some knowledge of how to find, access and use scientific research in future.
- Supporting individual councillors/clerks to have more confidence and information with which to address climate-hesitant colleagues.
Both researchers and councils
- Forging long-term links and trust within local communities, and broadening the networks of all involved.
There are also broad benefits for our communities, as council decisions become more evidence-based, civic engagement of researchers is increased, and more trust/understanding is formed between groups that otherwise may not interact.
Setting up the placements
The placements will need central organisation by Then Try This (external to universities and local government), together with local representatives (likely within universities) to help publicise and support the placements. We will build a new Evidence Support Initiative website, which will include information about the scheme, including a structured outline showing how the placements work, how researchers and councils benefit from taking part, a map with links to case studies from previous placements (as short posts or videos), and the opportunity to sign up.
We will accept researchers from PhD students (year 2 onwards) through to Professor, from any science or social science field. Any type of UK council may take part, including parish, town, community, district, borough, city, county, and unitary councils, and the placements can be with an individual councillor, a group of councillors, a full council, a clerk, or other council staff. As part of the sign-up process, Councils will need to briefly outline particular projects where researcher support would be helpful. Pairings will firstly be made based on location, prioritising council and researcher pairs who are geographically closest to each other, and secondly based on interests. There is also the possibility to prioritise councils that have been less active on climate change and/or inequality (for example using the Council Climate Plan Scorecard). The basis for the selection process will need to be straightforward and completely transparent, and must be designed with inclusion at the forefront, challenging existing power imbalances.
We will open the scheme to new participants yearly, with options for 6 or 12 month placements. Numbers will be capped depending on available funding.
How the placements will work
The placements will be 6-12 months long, and linked to the municipal year (starting in late May), with 1-2 days work/month. This time can be arranged between the pairs as they wish, and is only a guide - some may choose to continue working together after the placements end, as the majority did in our pilot. Regular contact is necessary, for example a successful placement from the pilot held a 1 hour call together every 2 weeks. The pairs can choose how they meet, though we encourage online meetings for improved inclusion and reduced carbon emissions from travel.
Together, the researcher and council pairs will need to agree to work either on a particular defined issue, or on an ongoing basis for a themed area. It is important to agree on what each side hopes to achieve, and on a desired end goal with feasible outcomes.
The researcher is encouraged to attend a full council meeting before or soon after the start of the placement to introduce themselves, meet the councillors, and begin to learn how their council works. This may not always be appropriate on larger councils, but other opportunities will be established in this instance. Continued researcher attendance at council meetings is recommended, and the pairs are encouraged to present their work to the full council as these are a public forum and this approach aids transparency. In Wales there has recently been passed legislation that all council meetings must be available to attend in hybrid form - similar legislation may follow elsewhere in the UK. If the researcher is unable to or prefers not to attend in-person meetings, support will be provided to ensure they can still participate.
Documentation and transparency of the placements is essential, but it is flexible as to how the pairs choose to do this. Previous placements have set up a shared online document (for example using Google Docs or an Etherpad) and provided the full council with access. The work could also be published in council publications or on council websites, and academic publications resulting from the work are also possible (for example PLoS Biology Community Pages are designed for this type of work, and are open access with no publication fee). Following the placements, we will ask for a short written case study to go on the Evidence Support Initiative website, and we will provide a template to make this easier.
Once participants have signed up and been accepted onto a placement, we will provide online group briefing meetings for the researchers and councils separately. In later stages of the roll-out these could also be provided via recorded videos. They will include information on how university research works (for councils) and how councils work (for researchers), how to get the most out of the placements, and how to ensure transparency during the placements. Following the briefings, we will provide a checklist for the researchers and councils, to help ensure that everything is in place, including:
- Have you agreed on a topic for your placement?
- Have you decided on what outcomes you would like to achieve during the placement?
- Have you decided how often, and how you will meet, and how much time you are each able to put into the placement?
- Have you made a shared document to keep your notes accessible to each other, and possibly to other council members if appropriate?
- Have you put information about your placement in your council newsletter or website, for public transparency?
Within the first two weeks of the placements, participants will be asked to let us know what topic they are working on, and what the planned outcomes are - we will provide brief feedback. Agreeing on clear expectations for what each side hopes to achieve, time commitments, and reporting processes will help ensure the placements are successful.
A monitored online forum will be launched to allow participants to keep in touch with each other throughout, which will serve the additional benefit of enabling researchers to call on each other's expertise and networks to help with their work. There will be quarterly facilitated meetings for the researchers and councils, to make sure everything is on track and further encourage participants to get advice and ideas from each other. There will be an end of placement meeting for everyone, participants will be asked to complete an evaluation form online.
Evaluating the placements
We need to think about how to measure the impact in a way that is not reductive and overly simple/linear. Our preference would be to work with an external evaluator with experience on similar schemes to develop a thoughtful approach to evaluation. We will take an iterative process to the scheme, re-assessing the approach continually, and making improvements prior to the next intake based on the experiences of the participants and evaluator feedback. Evaluation reports from the Parliamentary Academic Fellowship Scheme Pilot and others are available to learn from.
Should the placements be paid
PhD students usually receive an untaxed stipend as a salary (though some are self-funded), and later career stage researchers will all be on full or part-time salaries. Typically ‘public engagement’ and ‘impact’ are considered critical and integral parts of a researcher’s role at all career stages. Demonstrable experience in these areas is beneficial for winning research funding, however contradictory to this, it is often insufficiently recognised by line-managers for career retention and progression. As such, it is important for the researchers that the placements either provide recognition as a valid and important part of their job, or that they are paid for their time. For some researchers it may also be necessary or beneficial to have a time extension on their contract to allow them to take part in a placement.
Town and parish councillors are unpaid - each council will usually have support and oversight from one paid clerk. Councillors on city and unitary councils for example are paid an allowance and/or salary depending on the type of council and the location. Councillors and clerks said they would not expect to be paid for their placement time as this would be viewed as part of their normal role, and the councils are getting valuable expert support for free.
It is important to recognise that paid placements are beneficial for inclusivity. Our suggested minimum stipend for researchers is £100/month (for 1-2 days/month work), which equates to £600 for a 6 month placement, and £1,200 for a 12 month placement (co-design participant suggestions ranged from £20-200/month). This brings the cost of 10 x 12 month placements to £12,000. Funding at this rate is only viable if the researchers already have stipends/salaries and the placements are considered part of their job. Funding at a higher rate would be preferable for inclusion, to legitimise the opportunity, to help buy-out researchers' time as opposed to adding to their workload, or to supplement a part-time or temporary-contract research career.
Expenses for the placements are expected to be minimal, particularly if meetings happen online, but should be covered by the project (potentially including travel costs, zoom subscriptions, and care costs for example). Council meetings are often held in the evening, which means care responsibilities may be an issue for some.
There are questions remaining around the tax implications of who pays the researcher, which may depend on whether they are paid directly via Then Try This, or through their institution or funder.
How to fund the project
The required costs are organisation, facilitation, evaluation and documentation staff time, website design and hosting, and placement stipends and expenses. There are no open schemes within UKRI that are a clear fit. Other research funders such as the Royal Society and Wellcome Trust may also be possibilities, but again there are no open schemes that are a clear fit. The project is an awkward fit for social funding via the National Lottery or Esmée Fairbairn for example, due to the inherent links with politics which tend to be avoided by these funders, despite the project by definition not being politically aligned, or related to lobbying. Universities may have some internal funding for supporting/training their own students/staff, or from the Impact Acceleration Accounts from UKRI to the Higher Education Innovation Fund (which is part of Research England funding), however funding from individual universities will not allow a national roll-out, and indeed may slow down the process of attaining national reach.
Our co-design group discussed the possibility of councils paying for the placements - a councillor who took part in the pilot said that in hindsight they would pay for it, but they would have been unlikely to take part if it had a cost associated. The use of paid consultants is common for local councils, but would change the dynamic of the placements, turning the researchers into service providers rather than equal partners who are there to learn as well as support.
During our pilot placements, all council-scientist pairs worked on issues related to climate and environment, despite this not being pre-prescribed. It would be straightforward to have themed placements to fit the remit of funders, for example climate and environment are a natural fit for NERC.
The stakeholder group suggested the Research England Development (RED) Fund as a potential route (however this is only open to registered higher education providers so is not an option), and highlighted the strong overlap of the project aims with the agenda of the UK Government Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities, as well as that of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
Who might be left out?
Similar policy placements have seen under-representation of people from non-Russell group universities, and from ethnic minorities. Recruitment for this type of scheme can often become word-of-mouth, which can create an issue around reaching people who might not be part of the same networks.
The Evidence Support Initiative model was considered advantageous over similar policy placements as council placements wouldn't require distant travel, living in an expensive capital city, or the purchase of smart clothes for example; removing some of the financial barriers to participation. This challenge will also need to be addressed by a robust funding model and adequately paid placements. Direct advertising, case studies, and wide representation on the website will also be beneficial.
To support people with disabilities and/or chronic illness we are encouraging online working as standard, and would aim to provide the necessary support for this (e.g. pay for a Zoom subscription instead of travel for the duration of placement). Similarly providing care support (not only childcare) and disability support on top of stipend would be advantageous. All videos should be captioned, with good contrast on website, and alt-text as standard.
We will need to make an environmental statement and an inclusion statement to put on the website, as well as a code-of conduct.
This plan remains open to feedback - if you have any thoughts, please do get in touch by email. This page will be updated as comments come in, to reflect contributors and their advice, so it should be considered a working document.
Our next step is to seek more significant funding to allow a national roll-out, in partnership with some of those who have contributed to the project development to date. If you are aware of any funding schemes or routes that we should consider, please do get in touch.