Learning the craft of using your research to engage in policy
David Garcia explains how academics can get their research noticed by politicians in order to inform and impact policy decisions
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Many academics aspire to seeing their research being used to inform policy. For these academics, however, engaging in a policy context can be a nerve-racking experience, with few resources to learn how to do so effectively. The best advice is to dive in because engaging in education policy is not a science – it is a craft. It is a combination of acquired knowledge and intuition, and, similar to learning other crafts, it can be practised and learned. Here are a few suggestions to get started.
- Get your research out there: 7 strategies for high-impact science communication
- Universities’ role in the climate change battle
- Eight ways your university can make research culture more open
Be prepared to work with politicians. Yes, politicians
Influencing policy on a large scale requires interactions with politicians, defined as elected officials and their appointees, because politicians set policy. Professional staff, such as agency heads and local administrators, carry out the policies. While these professional staff are certainly important to the policymaking process and policy implementation, they cannot get ahead of the public positions held by their political bosses, who possess the decision-making power.
Start with a practical problem
Engaging with politicians begins with connecting your research to a real-world practical problem facing their constituents. The practical problem is a real-world condition that exacts a cost, such as time, money or opportunity. Keep in mind that a lack of resources or failure to implement a specific programme is generally not the practical problem. The practical problem concerns whatever local conditions are getting worse as a result of a lack of resources or what local conditions will improve as a result of implementing a specific programme. Once politicians connect to a practical problem, introducing research follows readily.
Find unexpected allies
Commonly, academics turn to issue networks – an alliance of interest groups united around a common cause – as natural allies to disseminate their research because issue networks are where academics are likely to find agreement with others on policy and research issues. Learning about your research through an affiliated issue network, however, is also exactly what politicians expect because issue networks advance similar policy positions and research products from one legislative session to the next. When your research is brought to politicians by issue networks alone, your research simply becomes a refrain in a wider repetitive message. It does not stand out.
Instead, academics should enlist unexpected allies to advance their research. Unexpected allies are people or organisations outside the issue network for a particular issue that are willing to bring your research to others, including politicians. When politicians learn about your research from unexpected allies, they are more likely to pay attention. For example, a real estate developer who is a member of the business community, who brings research on special education to politicians, is an unexpected ally because the research likely falls outside the developer’s usual legislative interests. The broader or more unexpected the allies, the more likely your findings will stand out and garner political attention.
Teach to champion
When politicians champion a policy issue, they take action and expend political capital to achieve desired policy outcomes, on their own accord. The academic’s role is to teach to champion – to teach politicians so they can bring research forward themselves to the people and networks that they choose – without the academic in the room.
There are three points that academics must consider as they teach to champion.
- First, you are not presenting research yourself. In fact, when the process goes well, politicians will discuss the research as they persuade colleagues and interact with the public
- Second, the audience consists of laypersons, not experts. Academics should empower politicians to communicate the research findings at the layperson’s level of understanding
- Third, politicians choose the audiences to whom they present the research and, in so doing, take some ownership over the content. The materials provided to politicians should avoid politically charged language, strike a conversational tone and incorporate frameworks that politicians can appropriate as their own.
A shortened version of an academic article is no more useful to policymaking than the full version. Translating research to a policy context requires developing an entirely new written product that is intended specifically for politicians and is tailored to the fast pace of policymaking. This product, the research one-pager, connects the politician to research through a practical problem, highlights research evidence to specific policies, tells the politician exactly what they can do to take action, and does it all in 20 seconds. Yes, 20 seconds.
When creating a research one-pager you should:
- Start with a practical problem. This is so important that I must mention it again.
- Accompany statistics with stories, especially those that the politician can retell themselves.
- Downplay or delete research methods. Most politicians do not have extensive training to assess the quality of research methods.
- Omit the literature review. Politicians are not interested in the theories that undergird your research or how your work contributes to the literature.
- Close with the “ask”. Tell politicians exactly what they can do to improve the practical problem identified by your research.
- Display all the content on one page, with white space and legible fonts, so that the document is not only easy to read, but also looks approachable.
Engaging in education policy is immensely rewarding because you can make a tangible difference. You will also rejuvenate your research through meaningful interactions with those who make consequential policy decisions.
David R. Garcia is an associate professor at the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University. He is a former legislative staffer with the Arizona State Senate and was the 2018 Democratic candidate for governor of Arizona. His latest book is Teach Truth to Power: How to Engage in Education Policy.
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