Impact Practitioners

How to overcome research-policy barriers and strengthen uptake – lessons from United Nations 

By 03/08/2023

This 18-page conference report produced by the United Nations University Centre for Policy Research and the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies aims to bridge the gap between research and policy. It highlights major knowledge gaps and research needs within the UN, common barriers to research uptake and best practices and recommendations on how to improve the uptake of research into UN policy. It was written after a roundtable event with representatives from UN research and policy units and leading research organisations from around the world.

Although the lessons are mainly aimed at UN policymakers and researchers engaging with the organisation, they are still useful to anyone looking to learn more about how to strengthen research uptake and influence policy

The report highlights cultural, organisational, political and operational barriers that prevent effective uptake of research. It identifies the following challenges and barriers:

a) (Dis-)incentives for research uptake
Oftentimes, scholars are encouraged to focus on academic and theoretical research, which has a better chance of being published in relevant scholarly journals, than producing policy-relevant findings. At the same time, policymakers are not encouraged enough to seek out or contribute to research. 

b) Resource constraints
c) ‘Lost in translation’ problems

The report argues that researchers don’t present their findings in an accessible format for policymakers. Often the outputs are very formal, hard to digest, too long and without executive summaries.

d) Difficulties in access and complicated bureaucracy
e) Timeline mismatches

The timeframes of the academic research cycle and the UN’s policymaking cycles differ significantly. While policymakers operate within short timelines, academics might need several years to produce outputs, which means that sometimes their findings are no longer relevant for policy.

To resolve these challenges, the report puts together a list of recommendations and best practices:

a) Stakeholder engagement and partnerships
To ensure policy uptake, researchers should closely engage with policymakers, while both groups should proactively seek out partnerships for collaboration. Researchers should involve policymakers throughout the research cycle (starting with the research design phase) so that policy becomes an integral part of research projects.

b) Improving access for think tanks and academics from the Global South, developing dedicated policy units to liaise with researchers

c) Publishing of flagship reports and participation in high-level panels

A great example of a highly impactful initiative is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which has been providing regular reports about climate change and its consequences for decades.

d) More effective dissemination of outputs
It is essential that academics ‘translate’ their research findings into materials that are easily digestible and accessible for policymakers. It’s also useful to publish in journals widely read in policy circles and write opinion articles in major newspapers such as The Guardian or The New York Times. Academics can also engage with policymakers on social media and write short policy briefs that summarise their main research findings. 

e) Sharing preliminary findings

As a way to overcome the differences in timelines between research and policy, academics should be encouraged to share preliminary findings with decision-makers.

f) Creating incentives within the UN to engage with research

Overall, these lessons and recommendations from the conference report are applicable across organisations and countries. They can be a useful start in thinking about ways to strengthen your research uptake and develop more effective engagement with policymakers. 

This article is part of our initiative, R2A Impact Practitioners. To find out more, please click here.

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