Making your research accessible

Positionality and skills of research actors crucial in research-policy interface

By 14 December 2011

In June a really valuable special supplement was published in the open access journal Health Research Policy and Systems. Contributors to this supplement, Sally Theobald and Kate Hawkins blogged about the special issue here on R2A, and I fear both posts did not quite generate the level of discussion they deserved. As such, I thought I would take the opportunity to add another blog as a way of trying draw further attention to what is a really valuable collection of articles.

It’s not often you get a whole journal devoted to research communication, especially not with the single focus on  sexual and reproductive health and HIV/AIDS. Having picked up the supplement again recently, I was drawn to a section within an article relating to the ODI RAPID approach to understanding the research-policy interface (which I blogged about in the post ‘Reality comes first: Planning for policy influence’) written by Joanna Crichton and Sally Theobald struck me as being very interesting.

I won’t explain the ODI RAPID approach here beyond saying it breaks the interface between research and policy into three key elements: Politicalcontext, Links and Evidence. It’s a very useful way of framing how to look at this issue, so if you are not familiar with it, do take a look!

The article in the special supplement by Sally and Joanna, suggests that the RAPID framework missed an overlying principle that really needs to be brought into focus – The positionality and skills of research actors.

What does this mean? Quite simply it’s about the attitudes, goals and skills of researchers in relation to policy engagement; and at the organisational level, the support and characteristics that an organisation lends to policy influence. If attitudes are negative toward research communication (as many are), and if the organisational system is un-supportive (as many are), there is a massive challenge.

One of the solutions outlined to this issue was to place greater emphasis on building mutual support amongst communication specialists and between researchers. This, of course, seems to make sense, but it’s also worth mentioning that for some research-based institutions this is easier said than done. Many have no experience of working with research communicators, do not understand the intricacies of research communication, and when given the opportunity to build their capacity in these areas fall into the trap of thinking about research communication in a narrow sense (i.e. overlooking the need for a systematic approach, and seeing influence as a linear process).

This is a generalisation of course, but one where evidence can be added and one that begs a broader question – How can we ensure that the research community understand what research communication really entails?