136 – Engaging with policy: tips for researchers

Practically, what can researchers do to enhance the prospects of having their research adopted and used by policy makers?

There is no easy recipe, but there are many potential elements of a strategy. My advice is to do as many of the following as you can manage.

Understand the policy maker’s perspective. Understand the motivations and constraints of the policy makers you wish to influence. They will only adopt your advice if it is consistent with their objectives and perceptions. For example, if a proposed change disadvantages a group that the minister wishes to favour, or requires complex and time-consuming processes to implement, adoption is unlikely. Policy makers face numerous demands and responsibilities and invariably have tight timelines. They are likely to have expertise in areas other than your area of science. They may have different criteria for policy success than you expect.

It helps to align the research results with existing stated policy objectives if possible. Even if the results seem to conflict with current policy, attempt to express them as advancing an existing policy objective.

Science is not enough. Appreciate that “Good science itself is needed but is insufficient to drive informed decision-making. We have to translate it into a form for others to use and to improve decision-making” (King, 2004, p. 190). In considering policy options, policy makers will probably be more concerned with social, economic, political or administrative aspects than with science.

Practice excellent communication. In communications, recognise the lack of time that policy makers have. Be very brief, focus on clear messages, use simple language, free of jargon, using a mixture of approaches. In our experience, written material is useful but is not sufficient. Even more important is effective verbal communication. Communications should always present simplified/synthesised information rather than material suitable for scientists.

Develop relationships with policy makers. Attempt to establish a high level of mutual understanding and trust. “Emphasizing from the beginning an expectation that information will flow both from the researcher to the decision-maker and back to the researcher may allow for a more constructive approach” (Jacobs, 2002, p.10).

Be solution-oriented. It is relatively easy to point out problems with policy, but this may not generate an appropriate response, or any response at all. Do not expect policy makers or managers to see what may seem obvious implications of your research. When offering criticisms of current policy, also offer a practical solution to the problem.

Simplicity is essential. This is true both in one’s communications, and also in the solutions that one offers. In SIF3, based on earlier experience with SIF1/2, we gave a high priority to making the tool as simple to use as possible. It embeds a great deal of past research, but operates as a set of simple decision tables. As far as possible, the solutions one offers need to be simple, transparent and understandable. Policy makers are likely to be suspicious of solutions that rely on complex and opaque computer models.

Work with intended users. This will help to ensure that the solution being proposed is in fact practical and sufficiently simple. It will help to make sure that their issue of concern is addressed in a way that is relevant to them. When attempting to convince policy makers, it helps to be able to demonstrate that the solutions being proposed are already in use in the real-world. Our success in applying SIF3 with two regional environmental management bodies was very helpful in enhancing our credibility with policy makers. The fact that the work involved two regional bodies in different states was also an advantage, particularly at national level.

Distinguish between knowledge and values. Be clear that the values that policy attempts to enhance are based on the desires of the community, not science. It is acceptable for research to deal with values (e.g. studies of the non-market values of environmental outcomes, or studies like ours that integrate values with knowledge) but it is essential to be clear that policy makers will have their own views about the values. Traditionally, science deals primarily with knowledge rather than values. In SIF3, the values of natural resource assets were estimated through various means (see Roberts and Pannell, 2008) as part of the investment framework, but they were clearly distinguished from scientific information about degradation threats and cause-and-effect relationships.

Be pragmatic. One has to accept compromise, and it may be necessary to make conscious decisions about where you can and cannot afford to compromise.

Be patient and persistent. My attempts to influence natural resource policy began in 2000 and are ongoing. Establish networks and build support for your ideas over time. Repetition is essential, even to people who are already on you side. “Preaching to the converted, far from being a superfluous activity, is vital. Preachers do it every Sunday. The strengthening of the commitment, intellectual performance and morale of those already on your side is an essential task, both in order to bind them more securely to the cause and to make them more effective exponents of it.” (Harries, 2002).

Be resilient. Numerous problems, frustration and setbacks will arise. I have at times found myself and my work to be the subjects of ill-informed and unreasonable criticism, almost never to my face. In particular, people with vested interests in the status quo will actively resist proposals for change. These people may be insiders to the policy organisation and so have better access to decision makers than outside researchers do. Being part of a team helps when dealing with the various challenges that arise.

Timeliness is important. Be prepared to respond quickly to requests for information. Policy makers cannot wait for additional research. Attempt to respond to requests immediately if possible. It may pay to follow up with additional information gathering/research in certain important cases.

Find a champion. If possible, identify and cultivate a champion for your work within the policy organisation.

Work as a multidisciplinary team. The need for research that integrates biophysical and socioeconomic aspects of complex natural resource problems is well recogised. We have found that having expertise from a range of disciplines within the team has been very helpful when dealing with various policy officers with particular disciplinary backgrounds or interests. The team needs to include “integrators”, who can span the disciplines and draw them together in a way that is relevant to policy.

Our team includes researchers employed by a university and by a government department. This had advantages in that the university researcher was less constrained by government sensitivities, while the government researcher had easier access to policy makers within the same organisation and in a sister organisation.

Avoid any appearance of vested interest. In particular, do not present findings and seek funds at the same time.

Work with or within a boundary organisation. Boundary organisations attempt to mediate between the institutions of ‘science’ and ‘politics’. They can help to facilitate collaboration between scientists and non-scientists. The SIF3 project was conducted within the Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) for Plant-Based Management of Dryland Salinity, which included as partners a number government agencies that we wished to influence. The Chief Executive Officer assisted with our policy engagement in a variety of ways.

A number of the above insights are reflected in the following quote from Australian scientist Richard Stirzaker. In particular, it highlights the need for transparency, simplicity, and mutual understanding.

“To bring together the knowledge and aspirations of managers and researchers, the decision making procedure needs to be:

  • a system of clarity and transparency so participants can understand each other’s knowledge domains (most important);
  •  a system that makes everyone’s understanding of the problem explicit (no black boxes or complicated models);
  • a system that shows how a decision was arrived at (even if it is wrong);
  • a system that can be changed or added to as experience grows; and
  • a system that gives the correct answer (least important)” (Richard Stirzaker, pers. comm., 2007).

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Further Reading

Pannell, D.J. and Roberts, A.M. (2008). Conducting and delivering integrated research to influence land-use policy: an Australian case study, INFFER Working Paper 0803, University of Western Australia, Perth (submitted to Environmental Science and Policy). Full paper (70K).

Harries, O., 2002. How to win arguments and influence debate. The Australian Financial Review, Executive Highlights, No. 72, 1 February 2002.

Jacobs, K (2002). Connecting science, policy and decision-making: a handbook for researchers and science agencies. NOAA Office of Global Programs, Boulder, Colorado.

King, L., 2004. Impacting policy through science and education. Preventative Veterinary Medicine 62, 185-192.

Acknowledgement: Thanks to Sue Briggs for her writings in this area and for sharing other relevant papers.

One comment

  • Chris Twomey
    19 December, 2011 - 11:34 am | link

    Would be tempted to add to your list something about being opportunistic about finding political opportunities to put forward a solution. Unfortunately too much of policy is driven by the need to respond to the current process, debate or crisis. Policy makers may well be receptive to your point of view, but unless they can see how to act on it (where to plug it in) then it may end up sitting in the pile of interesting papers on the shelf. It is when you’re in the political process of engaging in a debate and critisising what has gone before or is proposed that a timely intervention with a particularly useful piece of research or interpretation can be invaluable.

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