Dr Chris Tyler is Executive Director of the Centre for Science and Policy at the University of Cambridge.
You don’t need a PhD to realise that rigorous scientific research can be used to inform policy decisions. But the process of translating research into policy has proven non-trivial, and too often the results of potentially useful studies get buried in academic journals, never to the see the light of a White Paper.
That is beginning to change as the impact agenda takes hold. Academics doing policy-relevant research are now expected to think about the policy impact of their past research and how to maximise the impact of their future research.
As the number of researchers thinking about policy increases, so is the frequency of engagement with policy makers. Whether speaking to policy makers in a workshop or down the pub, or writing an a formal briefing document or an email, there are some general rules of thumb that are important to remember. If you are a researcher and you want to get your message across to policy makers, here are six handy pointers:
- Lose the jargon. Jargon is useful in context, but in the same way that a researcher might struggle to understand a policy maker who referred to the “OGD HoPs” (other government departments’ heads of professions) or “the usual channels” (party whips), policy makers might find academic jargon hard to follow. For “normative versus positive” read “how things ought to be versus how things are”; for “the epistemology of ontology” read “what we know about what’s going on”.
- Keep it brief. Policy makers are pressed for time and are bombarded by a lot of information; so when it comes to communicating with them, less is more. Generally speaking, try and keep briefs to a couple of pages of A4 and presentations to under 10 minutes.
- Timing is key. The policy cycle moves quickly: a day early or a day late and it will miss the boat. So make sure of the timeline and meet it.
- Relevance and context. Questions that interest researchers are frequently different from questions that interest policy makers. Speak to your audience by putting what you want to say in the context of what they are actually asking.
- Stick to your expertise. Policy making is a complex and challenging exercise and the people who do it are expert at it – they have to synthesise vast quantities of information, only some of which is research-derived evidence. So when advising policy makers, stick to the evidence and be cautious about straying into policy recommendations.
- Be straight about the evidence. There are two kinds of scientific uncertainty. The first is due to differing interpretations of the same evidence by different researchers, commonly betrayed by references to ‘scientific consensus’ or lack thereof. The second relates to uncertainties in a given piece or body of research, and is typically communicated by the use of caveats. It is unfortunate that the former – the degree of consensus – is most interesting to policy makers yet is systematically misrepresented by researchers (who want their view to be seen as the consensus view). The latter – small uncertainties in particular pieces of work – is less interesting to policy makers, yet researchers frequently attach endless caveats, many of which are quite trivial, when talking about their own research. Try and be impartial and clear about scientific consensus, and try to avoid burying your key points under a pile of caveats.
One last thing. (This will come as a shock to many people.) Policy makers are not, repeat not, the enemy. They are typically smart, hard-working people who have to make decisions with complex and often incomplete information, and almost invariably there is no one right answer. Policy makers welcome assistance in the provision and interpretation of information, but naturally become defensive if they feel that they are being bullied. My final recommendation therefore: be a helper, not a ranter.