Investment of public money in scientific research often means that funders expect changes to take place as a result of their financial contribution. Achieving change requires careful planning throughout the research process, as well as the careful targeting of outputs.
One way to deliver change is through policy. We recently published a paper in the Journal of Environmental Management that identifies that research needs to be visible, available and also compatible with policy processes if it is to inform the direction of policy. Here we unpack these themes and provide some useful tips to guide researchers on the science into policy pathway.
1. Providing research visibility
It is essential to involve relevant stakeholders, including policy makers, from the beginning of a research project so that they are aware of the research. The first step should be to carry out a thorough stakeholder analysis, including institutional mapping and social network identification, to work out who is relevant and which groups communicate with one another. This helps all stakeholders to learn about the project and can facilitate their involvement in the research process. They can participate actively in the development of new knowledge and feel part of it, which helps with the adoption and diffusion of findings, as well as allowing the researchers to tailor the outputs to ensure they meet the necessary stakeholder information needs. An inclusive process can provide the opportunity for different knowledges and perspectives to shape the research, helping move towards compatibility between local concerns and policy changes, while helping to identify potential entry points to inform policy early on in the project. It nevertheless adds costs to the project.
Research Project Planning Tip 1: Sufficient resources need to be included to enable multi-stakeholder engagement to be an ongoing component of the research throughout its duration.
2. Making research available
Scientific research findings need to be made available to policymakers to enable dialogue and co-evolution of policy and scientific thinking. For policymakers, research findings in scientific journals are effectively invisible, so alternative approaches need to be identified. For example, researchers can usefully engage in strategic consultancy and research commissions for policy institutions and donors/funders to make their research (and that of the wider scientific community) more available to those outside academia. Syntheses of scientific outputs in commissioned policy discussion papers also provide an important opportunity to assess policy needs and gaps.
Appropriate formatting and communication of research is important too. Suitable language and media need to be used. Modern technologies, particularly web-based tools and databases can be useful here. The wider media (press, television, internet and new social media such as Twitter) play a growing role, raising public awareness about important research findings, perhaps even challenging the status quo of established political and economic interests. It is important not to neglect the traditional dissemination mechanisms such as policy briefs though, as these still have a part to play.
Enhancing availability of research also requires consideration of the way in which the problem is set out and the assumptions inherent to that particular framing, the knowledge that is being produced and the uncertainties relating to it, as well as the shortcomings of the tools and organising concepts used within the research. Consultation with research users ensures relevance. For policy changes to result, evidence needs to be in a familiar form to the policy audience and should set out a process through which the recommendations can be enacted, proposing responsibilities as to who needs to do what, and how that needs to happen.
Research Project Planning Tip 2: Pro-actively seek opportunities to synthesise scientific outcomes for policy makers in formats with which they are familiar and utilise social media for wider awareness-raising.
3. Making research compatible with policy processes
Researchers need to actively seek out policy opportunities to ensure the timeliness of the research outputs. This can be done by horizon-scanning to identify in which upcoming events relevant policymakers will be involved. Researcher engagement in platforms and arenas that facilitate science-policy dialogue, such as public seminars and multi-stakeholder workshops, can also be effective in informing the political agenda.
It is important to look at existing strengths and frame research findings so that they highlight the similarities and compatibility between existing policy and emerging directions based on the new research evidence. In this regard, the research needs to be supported with interpretation, with consideration given to alternative options, how they may be delivered and who they may involve if it is to attract the attention of the policy community.
Research Project Planning Tip 3: Be specific in identifying policy options (and entry points for their formal discussion) and then ensure the use of research findings to explain likely trajectories of change from the different policy choices available.
This blog has outlined some of the actions that researchers can take to channel their science into policy by making it more visible, accessible and compatible with policy processes, providing key tips for research planning. Additional actions can be important as well, and our tips are not exhaustive.