Drawing on research from their recently published edited collection, Syahirah Abdul Rahman, Lauren Tuckerman and Tim Vorley explore the diversity of ways in which academics can engage with policymakers and consider how these interactions can change over the course of research careers.
Policy engagement in academia is increasingly encouraged by universities, and is required as part of the impact agenda in research. External assessments of research impact such as the Research Excellence Framework (REF) show the importance of contributions to policy. For example, in the recent REF 2021 results, more than half of the 6,781 impact case studies submitted explicitly demonstrated contributions to policy debates. Academics are motivated to engage with policymakers, and many do so successfully, despite this, there are few up-to-date sources researchers can use to find out how academics can engage policymakers, and where the potential pitfalls lie. Partly in response to this, we gathered a variety of academics and policymakers to answer this question in our recently published book aptly titled “How to Engage Policy Makers with Your Research: The Art of Informing and Impacting Policy”.
Foundational to academic impact on policymaking is the idea that academics can provide tangible evidence to support policymaking. While evidence and knowledge can come in many forms, we typically describe academic evidence as knowledge that has been produced using a rigorous academic methodology, while not excluding that other forms of knowledge are equally as valuable. Despite critiques of ‘evidence based policy making’ there is robust evidence to suggest that policymakers value academic research in their work in making decisions, understanding background issues, giving balance and credibility, learning from other contexts and a means of convincing others.
The COVID-19 pandemic raised the profile of research evidence, and although news briefings focussed on case numbers, we saw also the foregrounding of social science evidence to influence policymaking. The public acceptance of vaccines and remedial institutional support that assisted UK SMEs’ resilience in the pandemic would not have been possible without close engagement between academics and policy makers. Providing tangible evidence (such as COVID-19 statistics) is an essential way of influencing policymaking, but there are also indirect paths to impacting policy. Tacit approaches such as sharing ideas and having conversations can be just as important and shape the way policy debates are formed, the development of policy questions, and the framing of policy solutions to society’s problems.
We suggest that there are many ways of influencing policymaking using both explicit knowledge and tacit understanding. For example, by moving between institutions using an embedded research approach, research teams can build a complex understanding of the policy environment while contributing actionable insights in real time. Working in consortia, hosting targeted policy events and creating research networks can be a vital way of bringing voices together to provide wide ranging insights on policy issues while working with policy missions and shorter commissioned research projects.
The means of engaging with policymakers is likely to change throughout an academic career, but it is important to start engaging at an early stage of a researcher’s career and be able to carry that approach throughout your career. With chapters both on collaborative PhD projects and PhD internships, we see that the flexibility of PhD programmes allow for research insights to be embedded in policy making while simultaneously developing the understanding, insights and experiences of future generations of academics. We then see early career researchers begin to find creative ways of engaging with policymakers to generate policy change within organisations, using novel methods such as embedded researchers and acting as a PERIpatetic researcher. Mid-career researchers begin to reflect on their relationships and partnerships with policymakers as true collaborations and ways to challenge the ways in which policy is created by asking which voices are heard and more established senior researchers can look towards becoming critical friends utilising their credentials to provide frank feedback. It is never too early or too late to engage policymakers with your research, and there are common messages, themes and approaches that cut across university hierarchy perceptions of career and experience with communication being the strongest of these.
Ways of communicating and speaking the same language are important. Matching your output to the best way to capture policymakers’ imagination can help with this. This could include writing to policy-specific blogs, carrying out relevant podcasts that respond to policy discussions, working with the media, and building a platform for a network of researchers keen on engaging with policy makers. Our collaborators showed that creativity is essential in pursuing policymaking engagements. Engagement should begin by creating awareness on what we as academics can offer to policymakers. Even if we know the value of our research, it is often the case that our users might not know how our research evidence can contribute to policy. At times, it is even less obvious to policymakers how they might approach academics to carry out formal engagement activities. Because of this, it is important that those interested in policy engagement raise their profiles as researchers and/or the profile of their research evidence and expertise. Academics should take advantage of non-traditional engagement mechanisms, reaching out to a wider range of stakeholders beyond the use of conference presentations and academic outputs.
A large part of the consideration of how to work with policymakers depends on the context. For example, working with policymakers in emerging markets involves a lot of resilience to the changeable nature of policymaking institutions. Depending on the policy issues (which in themselves can vary greatly from sustainability to diversity and small business), researchers must think about what level of governance to aim their research at (i.e. local, regional, national or international). Despite the complexity of the variety of contexts, researchers can gain a real sense of satisfaction from creating research that impacts at a policy level, seeing the ways in which our work can change the world.
The content generated on this blog is for information purposes only. This Article gives the views and opinions of the authors and does not reflect the views and opinions of the Impact of Social Science blog (the blog), nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Please review our comments policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.
Image Credit: Adapted from Van Tay Media, via Unsplash.