There is a wealth of advice and ‘how to’ guides available to academics on the subject of how research can have an impact on policy and practice. In this post Kathryn Oliver and Paul Cairney assess the value of this literature, arguing that unless researchers seek to situate research impact within processes of policymaking and academic knowledge production, this advice can ultimately reinforce current inequalities in research impact.
Many academics want to see their research have an impact on policy and practice, and there is a lot of advice on how to seek it. It can be helpful to take advice from experienced and successful people. However, is this always the best advice? Guidance based on best practice and success stories in particular, often reflect unequal access to policymakers, institutional support, and credibility attached to certain personal characteristics.
To take stock of the vast amount of advice being offered to academics, we decided to compare it with the more systematic analyses available in the peer-reviewed literature, on the ‘barriers’ between evidence and policy, and policy studies. This allowed us to situate this advice in a wider context, see whether it was generalisable across settings and career stages, and to think through the inconsistencies and dilemmas which underlie these suggestions.
The advice: Top tips on influencing policy
The key themes and individual recommendations we identified from the 86 most-relevant publications are:
- Do high quality research: Use well-established research designs, methods, or metrics.
- Make your research relevant and readable: Provide easily-understandable, clear, relevant and high-quality research. Aim for the general reader. Produce good stories based on emotional appeals or humour.
- Understand the policymaking context. Note the busy and constrained lives of policy actors. Maximise established ways to engage, such as in advisory committees. Be pragmatic, accepting that research rarely translates directly into policy.
- Be ‘accessible’ to policymakers. This may involve discussing topics beyond your narrow expertise. Be humble, courteous, professional, and recognise the limits to your skills.
- Decide if you want to be an ‘issue advocate’. Decide whether to simply explain the evidence, remain an ‘honest broker, or recommend specific policy options. Negative consequences may include peer criticism, being seen as an academic lightweight, being used to add legitimacy to a policy position, and burnout.
- Build relationships (and ground rules) with policymakers: Relationship-building requires investment and skills, but working collaboratively is often necessary. Academics could identify policy actors to provide insights into policy problems, act as champions for their research, and identify the most helpful policy actors.
- Be ‘entrepreneurial’ or find someone who is. Be a daring, persuasive scientist, comfortable in policy environments and available when needed. Or, seek brokers to act on your behalf.
- Reflect continuously: should you engage, do you want to, and is it working? Academics may enjoy the work or are passionate about the issue. Even so, keep track of when and how you have had impact, and revise your practices continuously.
Inconsistencies and dilemmas
This advice tends not to address wider issues. For example, there is no consensus over what counts as good evidence for policy, or therefore how best to communicate good evidence. We know little about how to gain the wide range of skills that researchers and policymakers need to act collectively, including to: produce evidence syntheses, manage expert communities, ‘co-produce’ research and policy with a wide range of stakeholders, and be prepared to offer policy recommendations as well as scientific advice. Further, a one-size fits-all model won’t help researchers navigate a policymaking environment where different venues have different cultures and networks. Researchers therefore need to decide what policy engagement is for—to frame problems or simply measure them according to an existing frame—and how far researchers should go to be useful and influential. If academics need to go ‘all in’ to secure meaningful impact, we need to reflect on the extent to which they have the resources and support to do so. This means navigating profound dilemmas:
Can academics try to influence policy? The financial costs of seeking impact are prohibitive for junior or untenured researchers, while women and people of colour may be more subject to personal abuse. Such factors undermine the diversity of voices available.
How should academics influence policy? Many of these new required skills – such as storytelling – are not a routine part of academic training, and may be looked down on by our colleagues.
What is the purpose of academics engagement in policymaking? To go beyond tokenistic and instrumental engagement is to build genuine rapport with policymakers, which may require us to co-produce knowledge and cede some control over the research process. It involves a fundamentally different way of doing public engagement: one with no clear aim in mind other than to listen and learn, with the potential to transform research practices and outputs.
Where is the evidence that this advice helps us improve impact?
The existing advice offered to academics on how to create impact is – although often well-meaning – not based on systematic research or comprehensive analysis of empirical evidence. Few advice-givers draw clearly on key literatures on policymaking or evidence use. This leads to significant misunderstandings, which can have potentially costly repercussions for research, researchers and policy. These limitations matter, as they lead to advice which fails to address core dilemmas for academics—whether to engage, how to engage, and why—which have profound implications for how scientists and universities should respond to the calls for increased impact.
Most tips focus on individual experience, whereas engagement between research and policy is driven by systemic factors. Many of the tips may be sensible and effective, but often only within particular settings. The advice is likely to be useful mostly to a relatively similar group of people who are confident and comfortable in policy environments, and have access and credibility within policy arenas. Thus, the current advice and structures may help reproduce and reinforce existing power dynamics and an underrepresentation of people who do not fit a very narrow mould.
The overall result may be that each generation of scientists has to fight the same battles, and learn the same lessons over again. Our best response as a profession is to interrogate current advice, shape and frame it, and to help us all to find ways to navigate the complex practical, political, moral and ethical challenges associated with being researchers today. The ‘how to’ literature can help, but only if authors are cognisant of their wider role in society and complex policymaking systems.
This blog post is based on the authors’ co-written articles, The dos and don’ts of influencing policy: a systematic review of advice to academics, published in Palgrave Communications, and ‘How should academics engage in policymaking to achieve impact?’ published in Political Studies Review
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Impact Blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our comments policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below
About the authors
Kathryn Oliver is Associate Professor of Sociology and Public Health, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (@oliver_kathryn ). Her interest is in how knowledge is produced, mobilized and used in policy and practice, and how this affects the practice of research. She co-runs the research collaborative Transforming Evidence with Annette Boaz. https://transformure.wordpress.com and her writings can be found here: https://kathrynoliver.wordpress.com
Paul Cairney is Professor of Politics and Public Policy, University of Stirling, UK (@Cairneypaul). His research interests are in comparative public policy and policy theories, which he uses to explain the use of evidence in policy and policymaking, in one book (The Politics of Evidence-Based Policy Making, 2016), several articles, and many, many blog posts: https://paulcairney.wordpress.com/ebpm/