The Leicester policy expert making a difference in Parliament

Photo: UK Parliament/Annabel Moeller

Rick Whitaker, Professor of Politics at the University of Leicester, is bringing his research to Parliament thanks to his special advisor role.

He is currently in his second year as a Thematic Research Lead (TRL) for Parliament, Public Administration and the Constitution – a knowledge exchange role funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

Here he explains his work as a TRL and why communication between academics and Parliament is so important.

Tell us a bit about your background and area of research

My research focuses on the study of legislatures, particularly the UK and European Parliaments, as well as British political parties and European integration.

I studied Politics and Contemporary History for my undergraduate degree at the University of Salford, followed by a Master’s in European Politics and Policy at the University of Manchester. My PhD, funded by the ESRC, was about the European Parliament’s political parties and committees.

I came to Leicester in 2004 and started working with my colleague Philip Lynch on British political parties and European integration, with a focus on the Conservative Party. Jumping forward a number of years, I secured an ESRC grant along with colleagues to conduct detailed research about how Parliament dealt with the Brexit process. I also developed another strand of research with Shane Martin at the University of Essex about the coalition government during the 2010-15 period in Britain and how Parliament operated during that time. It was this body of work that brought me into the world of studying the UK parliament.

You are currently doing a second year in parliament in a knowledge exchange role. Can you explain what it means to be a Thematic Research Lead?

TRLs are mid-career researchers embedded three days a week in Parliament.

The network was started in 2023 to facilitate and enhance the use of research evidence and expertise in Parliament through effective knowledge exchange and collaboration. There are currently three TRLs covering the policy areas of: international affairs and national security; climate and environment; and Parliament, public administration and constitution. 

I am the lead for the Parliament, Public Administration and Constitution (PPAC) hub, meaning I get to work with staff in the Commons Library and select committee teams. I initially had a one-year contract commencing in January 2023 but it has now been extended until September 2024. 

What have you been working on so far?

It has been fascinating learning about how Parliament works from the inside and also bringing the fruits of academic research into Parliament.

During my time I have organised seminars for parliamentary staff, bringing in academics working on topics such as devolution, political parties and elections. I have also written a paper for the Senedd (Welsh Parliament) and briefed one of their committees on the results of this work. I have helped to coordinate the horizon scanning for my hub, as we look forward to events that might follow a general election and work out the implications for staff involved with constitutional, public administration and parliament-related topics. I have helped parliamentary committees find the best researchers for their inquiries and brought the latest research on areas such as voter identification at UK elections to the attention of committees.

One of the major projects I have been involved with is co-writing a Commons Library Briefing on delegated powers and framework legislation. Writing on this topic has given me the chance to work closely with staff in the Commons Library, Commons select committee teams and with staff from committees in the House of Lords that specialise in delegated powers. I have had the chance to gather my own data and summarise academic and think-tank research on this topic. This task has also provided me with the opportunity to learn to write for different audiences including MPs, parliamentary staff and the public.

What are your plans for the remainder of your time in the role?

I am working on a new programme of seminars to bring the latest academic research to Parliament on a wide range of topics linked to the PPAC hub. I will also be briefing the Scottish Parliament on skeleton bills and working with a panel of academics on training for Senedd staff on this topic.

In the longer term I hope to take the connections and knowledge of parliamentary procedure that I have gained into my academic work, developing research that has a greater chance of impact on policy makers.

What would you like to see change with regards to how parliament works with academic researchers?

I would like academics to gain a better understanding of how Parliament works. One of the difficulties for academics is that Parliament often works on quick time scales, with short deadlines for evidence on select committee inquiries. This can be challenging for academics with their teaching, research and administration commitments and generally busy timetables. They therefore need more support to better understand how committees operate and how quickly they have to go about collecting evidence. On the other hand, I would also like to see Parliament strengthen their links with researchers. I have been pleased to see better mechanisms developed lately with more open channels of communication, strengthening the links between both parties. 

The University will soon be launching its Institute for Policy. What benefits will this bring to the institution?

I think it is a great initiative for Leicester. There is lots of policy-relevant research going on within the institution and anything we can do to promote that and improve our connections with the policy making world, and the public more broadly, is really worthwhile. It will allow academics to build on their connections with practitioners, policy makers, government departments and Parliament. It is a positive development and I am looking forward to seeing it strengthen our impact agenda and case studies.