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Helpful hints for sharing research with people in policy

6th September 2021

Emerald recently hosted a webinar asking Is research output fit for the future? Among the panellists was Louis Coiffait, a civil servant in the UK Government’s Open Innovation Team, a cross-government consultancy that helps get academics and other experts’ analysis and ideas into policy. To discover more about the organisation, we asked them to answer the seven most common questions that researchers ask.

1) Who are ‘policy-makers’?

It’s useful to put yourself in the shoes of those you’re trying to influence. Policymakers work in Parliament or government and are either politicians or officials. The latter – such as those in central government departments like us – are usually educated non-specialists who might be new to a policy area. Or, they maybe more senior and cover a wider range of policy areas. They might also be in one or more of the 25 ‘professions’, from very specialist fields like ‘statisticians’ to the big ‘policy’ bucket. And remember officials abide by the Civil Service Code, including being objective and impartial. It doesn’t matter how great your research is, officials may be cautious when dealing with overtly partisan or strongly opinionated researchers.

2) Why aren’t policymakers using my evidence and expertise?

There are lots of possible reasons! Often, they’re short of time and need specific evidence at one particular moment. They might use slightly different terms to the ones researchers are used to, such as ‘industrial strategy’ rather than ‘priority sectors’, or ‘levelling up’ rather than ‘regional growth’. 

They might also lack an institutional log-in to get through paywalls, although open access research is starting to help with this. Typically they’re not academics, so might struggle to use academic search engines, understand ‘the literature’ in a policy area, judge one piece of research versus another, decipher what a study is actually saying, or judge its robustness. This all means it can be hard for officials to know the extent they can trust research.

3) Which policymakers should I be trying to contact?

We tend to advise aiming for Grade 6 or 7 ‘working level’ officials, for example with 'senior policy adviser' in their title. They should have the most useful mix of responsibility, autonomy and time. You should also focus on those covering the most relevant policy areas – it’s worth exploring related organisations on gov.uk and having a look around LinkedIn.

4) How can policymakers find me and my research?

Policymakers might see your name on social or traditional media, in more specialist press like The Conversation or a university blog, or at an event. A lot of officials are on Twitter but aren’t visible. They may find you via your research, but only if they can get past the paywall and know what terms to use. They may use tools like Google Scholar, Konfer, or Overton, but also Google Search too, so make sure you have a good institutional profile and/or personal blog.

5) How do I find policymakers?

With difficulty! Government is a big place, with 23 ministerial departments, three devolved administrations, and 551 other public bodies. There are over 400,000 central government officials. Even within the government it can be hard to find people. Each department has its own intranet with a people finder. If you know somebody in the organisation already you could ask them for help, or consider using LinkedIn to help identify people. Gov.uk may have more senior policy-makers’ names, as well as generic mailbox emails in some areas, and organograms. They say that policy is a contact sport, try to build your network by actually meeting with relevant people, for example, speaking at or attending events they’re at. Think about their incentives and how you might be able to help them. for example by helping them navigate the literature in an area, beyond your own work. 

6) Who can help me contribute to policy?

There are lots of useful organisations, networks, training, events, and guides out there. Your discipline, department, institution, publishers, and funders can all probably help. Specific ‘broker’ organisations in the UK include:

  • Universities Policy Engagement Network (UPEN)
  • Capabilities in Academic Policy Engagement (CAPE)
    Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology Knowledge Exchange Unit (POST KEU)
  • Government Office for Science (GO Science
  • and us in the Open Innovation Team 

We tend to be ‘demand led’, so find relevant experts for a specific policy project we’ve been commissioned to do. We also offer universities training on how to have an impact on policy. POST also offer free training on engaging with Parliament, as CAPE are starting to do too. You might also take a look at Areas of Research Interest (ARIs), the What Works Network, and any relevant advisory boards e.g. on social security. Maybe you or somebody in your network knows somebody involved with a What Works Centre or on an advisory board who can help you.

The gulf between policy and research can feel huge sometimes, but there are lots of us out there trying to help bridge the gap. Nowhere in the world has completely cracked this challenge yet.

7) How do I know if I’ve had an impact on policy?

This is a huge question! In short, it’s tricky. Policy is a messy business, and clear ‘impact pathways’ can be hard to find. In the UK the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and more recently the Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF) are the two main, largely complementary ways of answering this question. Looking at case studies from previous REFs can be helpful. Different funders also use a range of metrics. Tools like Altmetric go some way too. In our team we track contributions and – more intensive – collaborations, especially with our four partner universities. We also send official thank you letters to every researcher that inputs to our projects, to evidence their time and contribution.