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From Ivory Tower to Parliament, and back again? : A review of key insights on academic-policy engagement from the LSE Impact Blog

The questions of: should academics seek to shape policy with their research? If so, how? – have been intensely debated. While not all research is suited to this type of engagement, in the context of social scientific research and UK policy-making, academic-policy engagement is often desirable to both sides: policy circles extol ‘evidence-based policy-making’, and academics value contributing to social improvement through their research. Yet, academic-policy engagement is frequently viewed as the clashing of two worlds, each with different time-scales, traditions and ways of working.

One valuable, widely-read collecting-point of voices in this debate, is the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) Impact Blog. In this blogpost, I synthesise key insights from a selection of blogposts from this website (see List of Blogposts, below) that deal with academic-policy engagement, to: 1) identify barriers to academic-policy engagement, 2) identify ways to strengthen engagement.
Identifying the Barriers

Some of the most prominent barriers to academic-policy engagement identified, include:

  • Workload: In a survey of 400+ research professionals, participants identified ‘workload’ as the most prominent barrier to academic-policy engagement.
  • Academics lack knowledge and expertise on how to contribute: Participants in the abovementioned survey also expressed feeling hindered by a lack of prior experience working with policymakers, guidance in crafting their contributions and certainty over how their advice will actually be used. In reality, many academics lack the knowledge and skills concerning policy-making processes, compared to policy entrepreneurs and analysts, whose work constitute an industry in itself.
  • Communication Problems: Academic language can appear overly-technical and abstruse, to parliamentary actors.
  • A policy-making culture unconducive to research: In many parliamentary democracies, politician personalities and political agendas and relationships often too-easily trump research evidence, limiting research impact.

Narrowing the Divide

Ways to overcome barriers and improve academic-policy engagement, generally fall into two categories: what academics can do and how to improve academic-policy engagement initiatives.

What academics can do?

  • Make your research accessible

While open access in academic publishing continues to be debated – in order to maximise opportunity for policy impact, research work must be freely, fully accessible to all. Furthermore, non-technical research summaries (written as ‘elevator pitches’ demonstrating usefulness to policy), press releases of newsworthy findings and social media (e.g. blogposts) are valuable. Furthermore, accessibility of language is key; in producing contributions to be disseminated in policy circles, academics should avoid jargon or assumed knowledge, and keep their work to-the-point.

  • Clarify your key contribution

Academics should make their contribution to policy debates clear and specific:

  • Clarity of main ‘story’ or narrative: all policy debates are driven by policy narratives – what is the key ‘story’ from your findings?
  • Clarity of ‘theory of change’: what are the policy recommendations? How do you suggest getting there?
  • Clarity of outcomes: what are the specific, tangible outcomes that your research aims to achieve?

Clarity in these areas helps in identifying relevant stakeholders.

  • Engage with Stakeholders

Intentionally engaging with policy and practitioner networks is crucial. It is valuable to identify relevant personnel who have more resources, credence and experience in policy circles, who might work alongside to maximise opportunities for policy impact.

One way to do this is to connect with policy entrepreneurs and analysts (whether in charity, professional and trade bodies or government), through attending policy events, talks and debates – and discussing tailored proposals with them. Submitting written evidence to government bodies (e.g. Select Committees, in response to calls for evidence) or oral evidence in informal briefing sessions can place you on the ‘radar’. In particular, co-producing research – i.e. designing and conducting research in collaboration with parliamentary actors – is especially effective in bridging the academic-policy divide.

How can we improve academic-policy engagement initiatives?

Finally, there are two ways academic-policy engagement can be strengthened:

  • Improve guidance and support for academics

Through broader dissemination of information such as this, academics can be made aware of the realities, needs and demands of policy-making processes (e.g. different avenues through which they might submit research evidence, and the need to tailor their work to fit different parliamentary audiences). Academics should be given appropriate guidance on crafting the content and style of their contributions, and on how their advice will be used. Intentional engagement with each others’ networks and co-producing research, can help with this.

  • Creating a culture of collaboration

To develop a collaborative culture characterised by trust and accessibility, policy entrepreneurs/analysts, parliamentary staff and academics should demonstrate openness to working together. ‘Hanging out’ in each others’ circles (e.g. mutually attending policy and academic events) facilitates both knowledge exchange and development of connections.

Furthermore, institutions can provide structured ways for developing collaboration and protect time for academic-policy engagement (e.g. through funding bodies or universities dedicating funds for this). Recent changes to the Research Excellence Framework (REF) have provided financial incentives to universities to demonstrate research impact on policy. Nevertheless, continued and thoughtful consideration over how to recognise academics’ engagement with policy (and other aspects of society), would be worthwhile.

Collectively, these blogposts suggest that forays across the academic-policy divide are typically difficult, chaotic and frustrating – though certainly not impossible. Direct collaboration and co-production of research appear amongst the most effective ways of traversing the divide. Nevertheless, major shifts in how academics and parliamentary actors think about their work and run their institutions, is still required.

 

List of Blogposts from the LSE Impact Blog:

Lloyd, J. (2016). So you want to change policy? Six steps for academics looking to achieve policy change. (Accessed 3 April 2018).

Geddes, M., Dommett, K. & Prosser, B. (2017). ‘Rubbing Shoulders’: an understanding of networks, relationships and everyday practices is key to parliamentary engagement. (Accessed 3 April 2018)

Green, D. (2017). Want to ensure your research influences policy? Advice from a government insider. (Accessed 3 April 2018).

Walker, L., Pike, L., Wood, M. & Durrant, H. (2018). ‘Cutting through’: overcoming the barriers to academic engagement with policy processes. (Accessed 3 April 2018).