Blog post by Alasdair Neilson and Katie Cohen

Influencing Policy as an Early-Career Researcher

Influencing Policy as an Early-Career Researcher

28 May 2020 by Alasdair Neilson and Katie Cohen

At no time in recent memory has the relationship between science and policy been so squarely in the spotlight. COVID-19 has given the public a newfound sense of the vitality of science as the world collectively reckons with its dependence on research into the virus, treatments, vaccines, health system management, etc. At the same time, policy makers are more than ever leaning on scientific advice to guide the way forward.

During these turbulent times, CSaP has continued to engage with early-career researchers on ways in which they can contribute to public policy. In workshops held in April and May, experts shared insights from the wealth of experience they have gained working at the intersection of science and policy. We thought we would share some of these insights with you.

When engaging with policy makers, communication is vital, which means having a nuanced understanding of language, audience, and narrative. It is also important that you tailor your language for a specific audience who, although well-informed, will most likely not be an expert in your field. As Alex Long, Program Associate at the Wilson Centre shared at a professional development workshop in May, your scientific research is only one part of the puzzle. Understanding career backgrounds, what committees people sit on, the partisan nature of a particular issue and the 'bandwidth' of a policy maker is all important information for constructing a compelling narrative hook.

Timing also impacts your ability to engage with the policy process. Although you cannot control the policy constraints, pressures and priorities at any given time, you can have your pitch ready for when the moment is right. For example, despite researchers knowing about the microplastics issue for many years, it did not become a serious policy priority until the BBC series Blue Planet 2 generated significant publicity. This 'cultural moment' granted researchers a window of opportunity to engage with policy makers and to provide evidence that would have a direct impact on legislation.

Director of Cambridge Zero and climate scientist Dr Emily Shuckburgh, highlighted the importance of institutions that facilitate interactions between researchers and policy makers, such as think tanks, knowledge brokers and policy-facing university centres. Throughout her academic career, she has used the CSaP Policy Fellowship network to develop connections with policy makers. Such networks not only provide you with insights into the policy world, but they also enable you to form trusted relationships with individuals and groups. While these relationships may not seem enough to influence major policy decisions, they can quickly snowball. As Hans Pung (President, Rand Europe) told Cambridge Churchill Scholars, most people in the world of policy are connected by six degrees of separation or less. You, therefore, often only need to have a few contacts to start making meaningful connections.

Scientists' motivations to engage with policy can vary greatly; it could be the potential for real-world impact, general curiosity or awareness that communication with policy makers is fundamental to satisfying certain research funding requirements. While some areas of research seem more directly relevant to public policy, others do not. As Bill Sutherland, Miriam Rothschild Professor of Conservation Biology at the University of Cambridge, advised, it is always a good idea to keep asking yourself some general questions when you are thinking about how you might contribute to policy. These include: “What are you learning from your research?”, “What is society thinking about right now?”, and “Is there any way to inject your thinking in this discussion?” Yet it is also important to remember that science is often policy-relevant but not policy-prescriptive. Your research might not have a concrete policy recommendation, but this does not mean that it is not relevant to policy makers and the decisions they are making.

The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the need for holistic thinking, which James Cemmell (Vice President, Government Engagement, Inmarsat) claims holds true when considering any policy decision. No single discipline has all the answers when it comes to informing policy. For example, Germany's independent National Academy of Sciences COVID working group included historians, philosophers and 'pedagogical experts.' Beginning to connect with colleagues in adjacent disciplines could expand your perspective, revealing how your research fits into the broader policy agenda. Dealing with complex policy problems also requires consideration of environmental, cultural, social and political factors, so multidisciplinary engagement with the policy process is beneficial.

As Hans Pung says, engaging with policy makers is 'more of an art than a science', one that is learned best through practice. It is for this reason that engaging in the policy process at an early stage in your research career is beneficial. Skills can be honed, and networks made, making informing policy a more straightforward task as you become more established in your field. However, many do not know where to begin. So we wanted to share some helpful resources for those who may be interested in getting started:

Uk Parliament Committee inquiries: Open calls for evidence

How Should Academics Engage in Policymaking to Achieve Impact?

The dos and don'ts of influencing policy: a systematic review of advice to academics

Using Data Science in Policy: A report by the Behavioural Insights Team

Framework for Skills for Evidence-Informed Policy-Making

Uk Parliament: Research Impact and Legislatures

As we wait to see what's in store in our post-COVID world, we can't help but consider how the research and policy worlds might think differently about one another. Whether things return to business as usual, we see a cultural shift in science-policy engagement or somewhere in between, hopefully these tools will help you think about your motivation and potential to inform public policy.