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10 Tips for Researchers: How to achieve impact on policy

Handbook for researchers aiming to achieve policy impact
The handbook provides practical tips for researchers aiming to achieve policy impact
Jul 20 2020

The JRC’s Science for Policy Handbook provides advice on how to bring science to the attention of policy makers.

The handbook is dedicated to researchers and research organisations aiming to achieve policy impact.

Today we face major policy challenges, which cannot be solved without scientific evidence.

Science and policy are different worlds, but they must collaborate closely in order to address wicked problems of our age.

The JRC has the mission to bring science and knowledge to the attention of EU policymakers.

Over the past years, we have embraced new types of knowledge and practices.

“For instance, we have invested in practices such as foresight, complexity science and collaborative working. They help us use our collective intelligence to see the bigger picture and anticipate upcoming scientific issues”, said JRC Unit Head David Mair.

In the newly released Science for Policy Handbook published with Elsevier, we share the lessons we have learnt along the way.

In a nutshell, these are our top tips for researchers and research organisations aiming to achieve policy impact:

Start with Policy 101

Understand policymaking first. What are the policy goals? How are decisions made? Who are the key actors?

Follow parliamentary debates, discussions on Twitter, and participate in policy-relevant events organised by think tanks, political parties, etc.

This will help you understand who may need relevant and timely evidence.

Put yourself in the policymaker’s shoes, empathising with their responsibility for decisions that may have serious consequences.

Question the questions

Discuss and define relevant questions together with policymakers and stakeholders. If you do not have direct access to policymakers, try to understand the issues and questions from public discussions.

Remain sceptical, but not cynical: challenge questions and assumptions from policymakers and stakeholders.

Do not hesitate to reframe the problems and be brave in suggesting other types of research evidence than those requested by policymakers (we all have blind spots).

Plan for policy impact early

Think about the policy impact of your research early, already when you design research projects.

Scientific curiosity is a powerful driver for research, but if you are serious about policy impact, be prepared to adapt your research to the needs of policy actors.

Plan for impact strategically: policymakers need quick responses and questions evolve with political discussions. Who from policy, civil society or industry would be interested in your results?

Policy impact is a team sport

Improving the use of scientific evidence in policymaking in a conscious and systematic manner is not an individual task but a collective effort.

This includes policymakers (demanding evidence) but also colleagues, networks, and organisations in research (supplying evidence). Do your colleagues know the policy implications of your work?

You may not always be in direct contact with policymakers, but your colleagues can be ambassadors for the evidence.

Become a critical friend

Trust is vital and it is only possible if science and policy work closely together. It is a direct function of reliable and open relationships, as well as a mutual understanding of needs, interests and values.

Relationships based on trust allow researchers to understand and embrace policymaking.

However, do not compromise your scientific integrity just to get the political message right. Be prepared to speak inconvenient truths.

Speak up in the policy debate

Networking (online and offline) beyond scientific circles helps you gain visibility and start to establish your trustworthiness in policy circles.

You can do it by being invited to speak at policy events organised by think tanks, NGOs, media or political parties.

Connect – online and offline – with relevant policymakers and other stakeholders. Use what you learn from the policy debates to fine-tune your work and make it more pertinent.

Point policymakers to research relevant to the question at issue at any moment in the debate.

Become bi-lingual in both science and policy

Communicating to policymakers requires different approaches than communicating to scientists.

Being able to tell a captivating story – that you can back up with facts – is sometimes more convincing than yet more facts. The aim of science is to know and the task of policy is to solve problems.

They also have different norms, cultures, language and timeframes. Adapt your language and communication practices to this time-pressed audience: use shorter, simpler formats, avoid jargon and technical details and use narratives and visualisations.

Moreover, take the opposite approach to scientific papers: start with the conclusions and leave background and methodologies for later. Think also of new channels: policymakers rarely read academic papers, but follow blogs, Twitter and listen to podcasts.

Remember that they seek robust and easily digestible scientific evidence.

Beware a single study

Policymakers may prefer a concise, cross-disciplinary synthesis of the existing knowledge base, instead of the latest piece of research. Scientific novelty is not always a virtue in policymaking.

Put your research in the context of wider knowledge and prioritise research synthesis and literature reviews.

Relevant findings even from a decade ago may bring more impact if they are still valid and relevant to a current problem.

Champion diversity – no single discipline has all the answers

Often your background as well as professional and personal values influence the choices that guide your research.

For instance, why did you choose a particular method, data set, or why do you discuss a specific subset of theories? It is important to be aware and open about how your background and values shape your research choices.

Encourage diverse expertise in the policymaking ‘room’.

Be clear about uncertainties and limitations

Avoid the temptation to smooth out uncertainties and disagreements within the knowledge base to try to help policymakers with a clearer message.

Communicate uncertainties and unknowns in understandable terms, avoiding scientific jargon.

Understanding the policy context helps you to judge which of these uncertainties and gaps are important for policy decisions.

Final reflection

Policymaking is complex and messy, and scientific evidence is only one part of the equation.

Science cannot resolve value dilemmas or decide how to make the necessary trade-offs between different interests - that is for the politicians.

As excellent science, policy impact takes time. Sometimes you will not see it, especially not in the way you see citations, even if it does exist. And if you do succeed, policymakers may take the credit.

Accept it, try your best, and learn for the next time.

Want to know more?

You can find additional resources at our EU4FACTS - Evidence for Policy Community of Practice.