10 Ways Academics Can Better Engage With Policy Makers

May 1st, 2013 No Comments Other

Academics need to find better ways to communicate their research, and the Guardian has answers.

On Monday British academic and regular contributor to the Guardian’s Higher Education network, Matthew Goodwin, offered up some great advice for activists who also happen to be scholars.

 “As soon as academics leave the office,” he writes, “they find themselves lost in Narnia, where they know nothing much about anything beyond their research.”

Having just attended an ESRC knowledge exchange secondment, and inspired by a recent article on the topic by political scientist Philip Cowley, Goodwin lists 10 ways academics can go about engaging with the media:

1) Only share work that you think citizens and policy makers actually care about, or might care about.

“Treating policy engagement as an inconvenient and time-consuming ‘bolt on,’ you may close doors that could be left open for academics who genuinely care about this collaborative process.”

2) Aim for Genuine Knowledge Exchange.

Sending your latest journal article to a few policy makers is not true knowledge exchange. Remember that it is a collaborative process whereby academics and policymakers share their findings and ideas. “It is a long-term relationship, not a one-night stand.”

3) Learn Media Discourse in Advance.

Policymakers and academics speak different languages.

“Whereas they work toward collective goals, we can be isolated loners. Whereas they are anonymous contributors to policy making, our names (and reputations) are on everything we produce. Whereas they focus on the short-term while juggling numerous projects, we can devote years to just one research grant. Whereas they break evidence into small chunks to extract the key messages, we sometimes engage in lofty debates that have no tangible outcome. Simply acknowledging and adapting to this different terrain and culture is difficult but essential.”

4) Get to the Point.

As one policymaker at the secondment reflected: “Academics tend to be long on diagnosis and short on solutions.”

Goodwin recommends asking yourself this: “Can you explain the findings of your latest project in 15 minutes and identify three key messages that you could take into a conversation with a policymaker?”

5) Diversity your outputs.

Academics are often told they need to communicate their research in different ways, but this is especially true in the arena of policy.

6) Accept that it may bring costs.

According to a recent survey of UK academics across all disciplines, the most important constraint to engaging with external organizations is a lack of time, which was cited by 66%, followed by bureaucracy or the inflexibility of administrators in their institution (31%) and insufficient rewards from the interaction itself (29%).

Decide whether it’s worth stalling your academic life for special access to the inner workings of policy: If engagement extends to a secondment, you may be asked to sign-up to the civil service code, meaning you are not permitted to engage with media or even publish academic articles.

7) Keep regular but effective contact.

Be prepared to outline and update your research question, data, and findings in brief, regular e-mails to policy makers. It’s doubtful that they actually have time to read your entire 8,000-word paper. Include a link to the full paper but don’t force it. Try slides instead, which are more accessible.

8) Build a non-academic network.

Academics are generally worse than policy makers at keeping track of and building contacts. Use LinkedIn or Outlook to find connections, then add their e-mail addresses to your database.

9) Become a “trusted voice.”

You want to be someone who is objective, reliable, and transparent in the eyes of the media. Goodwin warns of an example in which “an academic turned up unprepared to a seminar, talked for 30 minutes about a different issue, and appeared dogmatic and aggressive when asked about his research.” This was enough to raise questions about whether he would be invited back.

10) Forget impact, at least for now.

As the policymaking process is far more complicated than the impact debate often assumes, it is unlikely that your proposal will be adopted straight away. Getting a policy passed requires time, continued genuine effort, and patience.

“Instead,” Goodwin says, “focus on the more realistic but also essential first step of engaging in good and robust knowledge exchange. Diversify your outputs, cultivate a database of contacts, nurture your reputation as a trusted voice and as an academic who is open to the realities of the day-to-day policymaker and, above all, be pragmatic.”


Saga Briggs is an author at InformED. You can follow her on Twitter@sagamilena or read more of her writing here.

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