Building relationships to inform government policy

One of the keys to a successful academic career is networking. Did you hear that? It was barely audible; the sound of academic disengagement. It’s not the full on (academic) disgust that you hear when someone presents already published research at a conference – for the second year in a row. Often academic disgust is clearly audible to the human ear, with vocalisations ranging from to the tsk, to the low-range “huff”; a slightly forced exhalation through the nostrils.  Disengagement is more subtle and is often accompanied by an eye-roll. I’m familiar with it, as I see this behaviour in my workshops or my coaching sessions with researchers whenever networking is mentioned.

Disengagement with network-building activities may be tied into a fear that some younger academics possess when approaching someone in a relative position of power (or experience); it may feel like begging for help.  Many would argue, however, that networking is an essential part of building your academic profile; that you should be “shameless, but not rude” and that “any (positive) way of getting yourself known is a good thing”.

Some junior academics think that a firm commitment to the quality and integrity of their research will get them sufficiently noticed and sufficiently respected (read: cited).  Quite frankly, they wouldn’t be entirely wrong in thinking this – both are essential parts of being an academic researcher, but not what I’m going to focus on in this post.  In addition to these, today’s academic has to consider how their research results – or message, if you will – attain reach beyond their discipline’s bubble. In this post, I’m going to consider the academic networking from a specific perspective:  How, as a researcher, might you go about trying to inform and influence government policy?

This was the topic for discussion at a recent panel discussion, hosted by the Mile End InstituteHow to advise government? Routes into the policy making process. The panel was chaired by Graeme Reid (Professor of Science and Research Policy, UCL), and consisted of Halima Khan (Executive Director, Health Lab, Nesta), Joana Chataway (Research Group Director, Innovation, Health and Science, RAND Europe) and Tadj Oreszczyn (Professor and Director, The Bartlett School of Environment, Energy and Resources, UCL).  The panel spoke from their direct experience in helping to inform environmental, health, and energy policy in the UK and abroad, with a mind to providing practical advice to those who are less experienced at working with policy makers.

Policy, framed in the RCUK vernacular, is a major “pathway to impact.”  In the last REF exercise, over half of the (publicly available) impact case studies  touched on some way in which UK research informed some manner of home or foreign policy. However, though the importance of a particular line of research may seem obvious to the academic who worked on it, getting that message across to those who make and shape policy isn’t always the most obvious process.

Clarity and Accessibility
First and foremost, politicians aren’t often researchers. Thus, even before considering the channels available to get your research results to those in positions of influencing policy, we need to think about how and when this message is communicated.

We are accustomed, in our little research microcosms, to discussing our work using an idiom that is usually  jargon-rich as it can make communication between peers more efficient and specific. Research involves some rather complex topics, and though we as researchers should not fear the use of appropriate jargon, we can’t expect that someone from outside our respective microcosms is as well versed in our professional vernacular as we are. Moreover, when explaining the research it may also be necessary to first set the stage: Why is research in this area important? What has it told us so far? What do the methods used and design of the research tell us about our confidence in the findings? What is the “real-world impact” of these results?  Taken together, communication of research that might influence policy needs to be performed in a language that is accessible to policy makers.  As summarised by Prof. Reid, the policy world often “uses the languages of law and economics”, and thus researchers may need to think about re-framing their work in those terms.

Timing and Profile
Getting your research results to inform discussions on policy is a slightly different issue.  Our biggest priority as academics usually involves publishing and disseminating in academic or even discipline-specific circles. With an effective public engagement strategy, however, research that is deemed important within a discipline can get media coverage.  This, when coupled with effective use of social media and academic-led discussion sites like The Conversation, is one way to achieve reach in the public sphere.  If dissemination of your research is well-timed with issues that are current governmental priorities, this is a viable avenue to informing policy.  A message championed by Prof. Lee Badget, an economist whose research has informed policy impacting the LGBTQ community in the US, suggests (as paraphrased by Richard Joyner in the THE) that “influencing policy is to persuade others to add us to their networks.”  So if your timing isn’t in perfect sync with the political climate, you might have to ramp up your persistence; persuading those who reform policy that yours is a voice to be heard in the discussion.

In other instances, the policy sphere seeks consultation directly from researchers to inform ongoing policy reform. This may take the form of an open public consultation, as with the recent green paper on the impending Teaching Excellence Framework.  Response to these consultations can come from individuals or via groups like learned societies, policy institutes (aka.think tanks“), or non-governmental organisations (NGOs).  Government will also form Select Committees to address specific issues via enquiries.

Policy makers and members of Select Committees may also seek more direct and informal advice from researchers, either within the academy or via associated groups, as the absorptive capacity of government isn’t what it might have been in less austere times, a point made by several of the panellists in response to two audience questions during this MEI forum.

So how do you go about making sure you’re amongst ‘the consulted’?

Networking, Relationships and Persistence
Here’s where that dirty word comes back again. Networking is all about forming relationships. Cultivating relationships with policy makers as well as with the various groups that mediate the interface between researchers and the policy makers are essential.  This can take the form of joining and becoming active within a learned society that is relevant to your research. If you’re in the earlier stages of your career, consider forming connections with other academics who inform policy in your discipline, and think about how you might use the media, social and otherwise, to promote your profile and help you to forge those connections with other groups at the research-policy interface.

While social networking and online media are all tremendously useful in promoting your research and profile, they cannot replace face-to-face networking.  Some business leaders, though active in their online networking, remain unconvinced as to its power: how does thousands or tens-of-thousands of ‘likes’ or ‘followers’ actually translate into real influence?  There is an added level of credibility imparted by non-verbal communication when we meet with people face-to-face.

When I asked Halima Khan how a burgeoning academic should go about forging these networks, she suggested that a certain level of both gregariousness and persistence are required.  Academics should actively seek out NGOs and other organisations that deal with the particular field they work in; making efforts to attend open events like ones that the MEI put on for example, in order to make these valuable connections. Perhaps on top of attending these events, a certain level of preparation and strategy are needed: who do you need to meet and why? Think about your elevator pitch carefully; factoring in your audience, your message and its impact (as you see it). And above all, don’t give up.  If you don’t make the connection you hope for, try again or try someone else in the organisation.

The Take Home Message on How to Advise Policy

  • Have a clear narrative in accessible language
  • Communicate the confidence levels with your research evidence
  • Consider the timing of your research with respect to government priorities
  • Form and nurture relationships with the policy sphere
  • Cultivate your research profile, both in person and online
  • If you want to be heard: be persistent


About ruipiresmartins

I'm a researcher developer for postdocs and research staff at Queen Mary University of London. Prior to that, I was an EMBO Fellow at the Gurdon Institute (University of Cambridge), studying Embryonic development and a PDRA in the Institute of Bioengineering (QMUL) studying nuclear and chromatin architecture in embryonic stem cells.
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