Communication, Policy, Research

137 – Engaging with researchers: tips for policy makers

Practically, what can policy makers do to enhance the prospects of having their policies founded on sound research?

Quite a lot has been written giving advice to researchers about how to engage with policy makers, but I’ve never read anything directed at policy makers giving them advice on how to engage with researchers. This is a shame, because they need just as much help. Here are my thoughts on the subject.

Understand the researcher’s perspective. There are many different types of researchers, of course, but as a generalisation, they are more interested in innovative ideas and being at the cutting edge of their discipline than they are in the information needs of policy makers. Their main goal is probably to have innovative research published internationally. Often, the real information needs of policy are pretty simple, so the research needed to provide that information may be seen as pedestrian by researchers. Just because some information is important, it doesn’t mean it will be publishable in good journals.

Consequently, there is not a lot of incentive for scientists to fill all the information gaps in an area. They will tend to tackle those aspects that are the most interesting or publishable, and then move on. Depending on the subject area, this may mean that there are a lot of basic details unresearched, even when researchers have been active in that area. At least some of the key information needs of policy are quite likely to be in those unresearched details.

So you shouldn’t necessarily ask researchers to provide information about the “latest” research – it may not be all that useful. If your information needs are for basic data, rather than cutting-edge knowledge, then you will probably need to pay for its collection. You can’t necessarily expect to find it sitting on the shelf somewhere.

Even if research is selected by a government research funding organisation, you cannot necessarily expect that it will meet the needs of policy. The decision makers in that funding organisation are likely to be from research backgrounds themselves, and to prioritise innovation ahead of policy usefulness (or to fail to recognise policy usefulness).

Actively engage on research questions and priorities. Most researchers have little or no idea about which information in their field could be most useful to policy makers. Their research questions usually are not posed from a problem-solving, decision-making perspective. Just because a researcher is doing research on a certain issue, it does not follow that the research will provide the information needed to manage that issue.

Work out your information needs and communicate them clearly. When I have heard policy makers attempting to express their research needs, mostly they talk in terms that are much too general – they want research about X. The problem is that there is any amount of research about X that could be done, and if you leave it to researchers to choose which bits they’ll tackle, the chances are that it will not meet policy needs. So there is an onus on policy makers to get it much clearer in their own minds what their specific information needs are, and then to explain them clearly to researchers. Using an investment framework to select priorities for public investment can help to flush out and prioritise information gaps.

Researchers rely on written communication to a greater extent than do policy makers. Brief communication is likely to be effective for busy researchers just as it is for policy makers, but the requirement for brevity is not so extreme for researchers.

Timing issues. The rushed time frames for policy development mean that there is never time to conduct new research to meet current pressing knowledge needs. But this doesn’t mean policy makers should not invest in research. There should be an ongoing targeted investment in research to inform the next phase of policy development. Unfortunately, policy makers rarely seem to invest in research with foresight. In my experience, they only think about their information needs at the moment they need it, and don’t follow up to ensure that key gaps are filled.

Develop relationships with researchers. 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).

Distinguish between knowledge and values. As a policy maker, what you need from researchers is knowledge, not an expression of their personal values – you want a scientist to be an independent arbiter on the facts, or an honest broker, rather than an issue advocate (see PD#110). In theory, most research focuses on knowledge and should put personal values aside, but in practice, researchers are human and their values creep into their interpretation of results, and especially their judgments about the policy implications of research. Inevitably, there is something of a trend for those scientists who are most interested in policy to be those who most seriously tangle up their knowledge with their values, particularly among environmental researchers. Obviously, a scientist’s values are no more important than anyone else’s, so you need to get at the knowledge behind a scientist’s recommendation, rather than taking the recommendation at face value.

Don’t rely solely on local scientists who are known to you. Some of your information needs may be better met by, say, national experts who reside elsewhere.

Be wary of “common knowledge” about scientific questions. Just because “everybody knows” something doesn’t make it true. For example, when I started working on dryland salinity, the common knowledge was that all farmers in a catchment need to cooperate to get control of saline groundwaters. This turned out to be untrue in many situations (Pannell et al. 2001). Ask experts to assess such matters of common knowledge and advise you about the ifs and buts.

Understand that researchers don’t like to compromise on knowledge. As a policy maker, you are used to seeking compromise on policy issues. However, such compromise is simply not relevant to questions about the accuracy of scientific knowledge, which should depend purely on evidence. In areas of scientific controversy, there may be value in policy makers cultivating debate about the evidence. This might later lead to development of some sort of consensus scientific opinion, but generally the debate phase cannot be skipped.

Support efforts to get researchers and users working together. This will help to ensure that the solution being proposed is in fact practical and sufficiently simple. It will help to make sure that the users’ issue of concern is addressed in a way that is relevant to them.

Work with 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. In Australia, some Cooperative Research Centres play this role quite well.

If policy is to achieve outcomes, science is probably not an optional extra. In particular, policy that neglects scientific evidence about the link between actions and outcomes is likely to miss the mark.

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).

Pannell, D.J., McFarlane, D.J. and Ferdowsian, R. (2001). Rethinking the externality issue for dryland salinity in Western Australia, Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics 45(3): 459-475. Full paper (114K) • brief version (11K) • newspaper article based on the paper (6K) • Full journal paper (164K pdf file) also available via the Journal homepage: