Knowing your audience

My policymaker doesn’t understand me…

By 18 September 2009

Isn’t it always the way? Just when you think that you’re getting along like a house on fire, speaking the same language, enjoying a meeting of minds, humming the same kazoo… Okay, I made that last one up, but you know what I mean. It’s easy to believe that two people who want the same outcome – let’s just say a researcher and a policymaker – can have an long-running conversation and know just what each other means along the way. Then suddenly, screeeeeech. The policymaker, for no reason that the researcher can immediately understand, brings the whole dialogue to a stop. The researcher retreats to their corner, and plays back the whole sad drama in their mind. Where did we go wrong?

Science into Policy illustration

Most researchers recognise that ‘dissemination’ is one small part of ‘communication’. It’s tempting when you’ve had a bruising encounter with policymaking to throw in the towel and move on. But reviewing our failures, large and small, is time well spent. Sometimes the true reason for a failure only comes to light long afterward – a particular minister had lost the confidence of their prime minister, a new policy director wanted to try out ideas that they themselves had developed during a recently completed PhD, a translator wasn’t skilled enough to convey your information the way you planned. There are infinite ways that poor communication can derail potentially good research projects. But how many failures does anyone have to survive in order to learn enough to succeed the next time? Given the length of many research projects, how does anyone ever succeed?

Fortunately the wider research community is waking up to the need to document better ways to communicate, and excellent research institutes are publishing guides to try to help researchers get it right.

The UK’s Natural Environment Research Council has recently updated and published their guide, Science into Policy: Taking part in the process. The guide is written for UK-based research and policymaking, but the sections on ‘Communicating with government’ and ‘Communicating with national parliaments and assemblies’ are good guidelines for the kind of information that any researcher should know about a government or parliament that they are trying to work with. They’ve also put together a nice ‘Top Ten Tips for communicating science to policymakers’. I particularly like ‘Remember the media’s influence on policy-makers – MPs read newspapers and listen to the radio. For example, Colin Challen MP put forward a bill on a Domestic Tradable Quotas Scheme for reducing greenhouse gas emissions (a Tyndall Centre proposal), after hearing a report about it on Radio 4’s Today programme.’ There are nine more, but to find out what they say you’ll just have to read the report yourself.


  • karin loudon

    None of the academics that I work with would take the time to read such a long booklet – they are neither interested nor have the incentives to do so. And much of what is in there is obvious to communications people (or at least should be). So who do the authors think their audience is for this booklet?