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Researchers need help to speak the language of policy

Emma Weitkamp

For the past five years, I have run two pan-European research news services funded by the Commission: Socio-economic and Humanities Research for Policy, and Science for Environment Policy. As their names suggest, they aim to bring policymakers’ attention to the latest EU funded research, and to cater to the growing demand for evidence throughout the policy cycle.

There have been many positives. Researchers value a communication specialist’s help in translating their work into short reports, placed in a policy context. Unlike the received wisdom among journalists that if you show your copy to a scientist they will fill it with caveats and unintelligible clauses, I find that researchers are aware of the need for context, simplicity and concrete examples. And more than three-quarters of respondents to a 2011 survey of researchers whose work featured in Science for Environment Policy said that the service added value to their dissemination activities.

Yet the survey also revealed that researchers are not engaging with policymakers as effectively as they might. Only 40 per cent of respondents regularly sought to engage the policy community with their research. A similar percentage said that they rarely sought to disseminate research findings to this community.

This highlights the need, already acknowledged by others, to bridge the gap between policy making and research. To this end, for the past two years, we have sought to encourage researchers to use the articles we produce to publicise their own work.

Among respondents to a 2012 survey, 31 per cent of researchers featured in Science for Environment Policy and 52 per cent of researchers featured in Socio-economic and Humanities Research for Policy reported using the material for dissemination. The difference between the two groups appears to be related to funders’ requirements. The social science and humanities researchers were all funded by the European Commission through Framework Programmes; many of these put a link to the article on their project website or sent the material to their project partners. Such actions may not be relevant for researchers with other funding sources.

The news services seem, then, to have had some success in connecting research and policy. Yet, the fact that at least half of those surveyed do not take advantage of this ready-made free publicity suggests that many researchers are not willing or able to fully exploit potential opportunities to engage with policymakers.

To work out how to tackle this issue, we interviewed both policymakers across Europe, and social scientists taking a training course on communicating with policymakers that we ran as part of the Socio-economic and Humanities Research for Policy project.

The two themes that emerged are that researchers need help in building relationships with policymakers and in learning to speak their language. Researchers, for example, said they would value training in the appropriate level of detail to use in policy discussions and how to present their research data.

For their part, policymakers tend to see the role of research as one of raising awareness of issues, highlighting policy impacts and evaluating policy assumptions. Framing communication in these contexts could improve their effectiveness.

Researchers also appreciate hearing directly from policymakers—training sessions that included staff from the Commission were valued highly, as they allowed researchers to hear from the horse’s mouth the evidence that is needed and the best communication strategies. While news reports help publicise findings, researchers influence policy most effectively by working with individual policymakers in specific contexts. For these contacts to be productive for both sides, researchers need to understand how to tailor their communications.

Research managers can help to bridge the gap between research and policy making by providing access to training and enabling researchers to build their own networks and policy contacts. Managers must also find ways to value interactions with policymakers, recognising the time and effort it takes to build relationships and enabling researchers to invest in this type of dissemination.

Policymakers have an increasing appetite for science, and openness to the research community. “When we have a project we feel the need of a scientific collaboration to ensure that the projects have real quality,” one local government official in Portugal told us. “Increasingly, especially in the environmental area, we feel more need to work with universities.”

The onus now is on universities to encourage and support researchers to meet policymakers half way.

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Emma Weitkamp is a senior lecturer in the Science Communication Unit at the University of the West of England, Bristol.