Knowing your audience

Lessons from 2014: What Policy Makers want from Researchers

By 19 January 2015

Academic’s approach to research communication has been studied and documented but the opposite end of the research uptake spectrum has been comparatively neglected (i.e. the demand side), and thus 2014 saw a growing number of studies attempting to answer the question: What do Policy Makers really want from researchers? By finding out what it is that policy makers want and crucially, what they will find time to read, research communications can be better adapted and ultimately more successful.

The gap in the communications literature seemed obvious; however, the fledgling studies are far from conclusive and emphasises the need for further research. Moreover, generalisations need to be avoided: policy makers are not all the same, differing policy contexts should not be conflated and in some cases policy actors outside of governments are the most appropriate people to target with new findings in order to achieve policy influence.

With 2015 bringing the possibility of changing policy environments, for example there will be major elections in the UK and Nigeria, there is a need to find out what policy makers want in terms of evidence and research communications, whilst remembering that both policy makers themselves and what they want, can change over time.

Key Studies and Findings:

  • Talbot and Talbot investigate what British civil servants want from researchers, in the paper ‘Sir Humphrey and the professors: What does Whitehall want from academics’.
    • Key findings: Two thirds of civil servants see academics as important knowledge brokers, policy makers prefer pre-digested outputs and policy makers value general expertise and focused research projects equally.
  • Avey and Desch’s paper ‘What Do Policy Makers want from us?’ explores US policy makers’ expectations of academics, within the National Security Council.
    • Duncan Green summarises the four lessons to take from the paper as: the need to blog more, perfect an elevator pitch, the retained dominance of print media over social media and the idea that ‘the best narrative (not the best evidence) wins’.
  • Ferguson et al. conducted research in Australia around the question ‘Are policy makers interested in social science research?’ (The paper’s key findings are summarised by the authors in a blog from the LSE’s Impact Blog if you are unable to access the article and the research snapshot very short but useful).
    • The authors found a disjoint between academics’ perception of their impact and policy makers’ opinions, with the academics being overly optimistic about the use of their work by policy makers. The lack of forums bringing together the creators and users of research was raised as a barrier to successful research uptake.
  • Enrique Mendizabal offers a good summary of the three studies on the blog On Think Tanks. The main point he draws from the US research is that theoretical language can be used when speaking to policy makers contrary to popular advice, but that academics are off-put by jargon.

Limitations of the Research and Further Directions for study:

  • The return rate for the UK study by Talbot and Talbot was 8% of civil servants. Whilst the authors argue that there is no self-selection bias with policy makers exhibiting a variety of views about academics the sample cannot be referenced as truly representative of civil servants across the UK.
  • The UK study also presupposes a very narrow view of policy makers excluding politicians and other policy actors, risking a blinkered view (although to be charitable they state that the study is only intended as a baseline reading). It would be interesting to compare different policy actors and explore possible differences in their receptivity to academic research (the authors hope to do this in the future).

Unexpected Findings:

  • Talbot and Talbot found that a surprising number (just over half) of civil servants read academic journals.
  • Talbot and Talbot also found that academic research was accessed 27% of the time via social media, the same percentage as accessed through academic submissions to Parliament.
  • Ferguson et al. found that 61% of surveyed policy makers had produced work based on academic research in the last year, showing that academic work is used and does have influence.

What does this add to what we already know about policy makers?

  • The studies reinforce what is already commonly argued, policy makers have limited time and prefer to read condensed academic outputs such as policy briefs and research reports.
  • The problem is what exactly can we draw from these new studies when the world of policy making changes so quickly and how should these findings improve research communications? New policy actors and new technologies appear all the time creating new avenues for knowledge dissemination but the typical constraints on policy makers’ time remain. Is the age of the policy brief over? Arguably not. Will social media replace the role of print media? According to Duncan Green’s interpretation of Avey and Desch, probably not.
  • Some findings seem to contradict each other. For example, the role of social media is much debated (Talbot and Talbot argue that it is growing in value for policy makers whilst Avey and Desch argue the internet is not an important source of information for policy yet). The only conclusion that can be reached is that the role of social media is growing but uncertain. Checking respective government advice to policy makers in a given country is a good way to gauge different policy actors’ interest and receptivity to social media as a means of engagement
  • How much do these studies add to what we know about policy makers? To a certain extent, the most valuable knowledge that will vastly improve research communications has yet to be extracted; what needs to be investigated is where academics have gone wrong trying to influence policy and what they have learnt from the process. Essentially, do academics understand what is expected of them by policy makers?