Everybody wants to save the world

Darkseid vs. Thanos (86365) [Photo by JD Hancock | https://www.flickr.com/photos/jdhancock]
Darkseid vs. Thanos (86365) [Photo by JD Hancock | http://www.flickr.com/photos/jdhancock%5D
Everyone loves declaring that their research will influence policy, and thereby be the catalyst for enduring, transformative, and positive change.

But is it all just wishful thinking? How much does research actually influence policy?

With the Australian Research Council touting a new Research Impact Principles and Framework, being able to demonstrate that your research has influenced policy or program implementation becomes even more valuable. In the UK, with its Research Excellence Framework (REF), ‘impact’ has already become quite the dirty word.

I’m writing about this now because, in the craziness of November last year, I attended a seminar hosted by La Trobe University’s Institute for Human Security and Social Change. The presentation was by Duncan Green, Senior Strategist for Oxfam, and it was advertised as a talk about “how change happens”.

Given grant application and national research council demands, this topic is hard to resist, right?

As flagged above, “influencing policy” is one of the things that many academics argue that their research outcomes will achieve, along with produce a generous number of publications, storm the frontiers of new knowledge, and bring forth a herd of rainbow unicorns.

Green’s talk addressed precisely how to get research to influence policy. It’s a commonly broached and much-anguished over facet of research work, particularly in many development and social justice studies areas. This is not surprising, given that many researchers are in the ‘I want to make a difference to the world!’ school of thought from the first time that they crack open Google Scholar.

Green opened with a clear and deflating statement that research rarely influences policy. This belief is echoed in much of the writing on this topic.

The story goes something like:

  • Everyone wants their research to influence policy.
  • Research rarely influences policy.
  • If you want your research to be some of the very rare stuff that influences policy, do the following…

In the presentation that I attended, Green did indeed move on to provide excellent insight into how policy cycles work and what’s involved in lobbying to bend influential people’s ears.

Green, and many others, highlight the gap between academic and policy makers’ timelines, and repeatedly try to disabuse academics of the fundamental misunderstanding around the idea of ‘if only they would read my work…’.

Academic outputs, overwhelmingly, aren’t what get accessed and digested by policy makers. Articles and reports aren’t often read or consulted. So how do policy makers find and potentially follow up on research?

  • “[policy-makers] frequently want short, clearly written synopses of research that can throw light on their policy problems” (Grabbing policy makers’ attention, Guardian Higher Ed)
  • “Turning your work into a few key points or recommendations quickly may be difficult, but being able to communicate complex ideas in an understandable and usable way is central to maximizing influence, and going through this process yourself puts you in control of how your work gets distilled.” (Improving your capacity, LSE Impact Blog)

In his presentation, Green provided a very useful listing focused on the audience for your work:

Who are you trying to influence, and what do they respond to best?

  • Policymakers – Big ideas. Compelling stories. Positive visions.
  • Civil servants – Objective, rigorous, credible methodology. Data. Technical details.
  • Corporate executives – Company-specific findings. Credible methodology.
  • Communities – Community-focused. Generated with their participation.
  • Activists, public attitudes and beliefs – Human face to the story. Killer facts – easy to remember. Clear impacts of policy.
  • Media – Controversial, new. Human face to the story. Killer facts with numbers.

[Source: Duncan Green, “How/When does Research Influence Policy?”, Presentation at La Trobe University – Melbourne, Nov 2014]

In addition to the issue of timing, other key obstacles include political barriers, conceptual confusion, and – as flagged above – communication.

Much of what I’ve written and quoted here, and found in my (admittedly shallow) review for this post, reflected the recommendations found in Gill Walt’s 1994 article, “How far does research influence policy?” (European Journal of Public Health; full text). Walt’s article focuses on the context of public health, and the discipline’s strategies for influencing policy. She ends with broad strategies for a multi-pronged approach that addresses the main problems in trying to engage policy makers (or other influencers).

Now an Emeritus Professor at the  London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Walt’s health policy research has resulted most recently in Making Health Policy (Buse, K., N. Mays, and G. Walt, 2012). If you’re serious about getting in deeper with these issues, their processes, and power dynamics, it’s worth a look. And I’d say that much of it is valuable for non-health researchers, too.

If you’re after a faster primer for the topic, and some great ‘how-to’ advice, Green has written about research influencing policy several times on his blog, “From poverty to power” (FP2P), and these specific posts worth looking up:

Two other elements became clear while I was working on this post and they are that:

1. Social media presence and profile integrity can be a big influence when it comes to having your work pursued further (especially when you demonstrate or discuss your research expertise during major events/crises).

It may not result in a direct effect (see next point), but a crucial part of being listened to is maintaining a strong, consistent presence in policy-making networks.

2. Expecting to see a direct effect from your research findings to policy change will most likely end in disappointment.

I had a very simplistic view of policy generation once upon a time: New knowledge created that signalled how to change policy for the better >> key people read + are convinced >> policy changed.

Now I understand the whole process to be highly strategic and somewhat muddled, where getting heard is a challenge, let alone having your research taken on board.

Sure, there are ways to position your work well to affect policy decisions, but – as with most things in life – there are no guarantees.

Your hard work on influencing policy may not ever be recognised or realised. As Christina Boswell wrote at LSE Impact Blog:

“governments may hardly be aware of how concepts or insights from research have gradually shifted their thinking. Yet it is often those sorts of processes of gradual diffusion that are the most likely to bring about radical shifts in framing policy problems.” (Research impact on policy-making. Boswell’s own blog, Politics, Knowledge and Migration, is worth reading, too.)

Does not being recognised for it mean that you shouldn’t bother with trying to influence policy and broader social decision-making?

I think we know the answer to that one.


  1. Green’s presentation sounds very interesting, the box on ‘who are you trying to influence…’ is particularly useful.

    I think it’s useful to think of research as something that might have different relevance to different audiences and can be ‘packaged up’ differently for each of those audiences. The problem is, you have to know enough about who you are trying to influence–their priorities, jargon, timeframes, etc–to frame an issue up in the right way.


    • Absolutely right, Mel, and that part – getting to know who your audience actually is – can be something that needs to be done way before you’re looking to disseminate latest findings. There are distinctions to be made, too, about who needs to know about it, who wants to know about it, and who is best to know about it…!


  2. A very resonant post, Tseen, as last week I was told to go back to the drawing board with my postdoc because I was trying to save the planet with literature! That was a learning curve 🙂


    • Ah, Jessica, I feel your pain. As someone who gained a PhD in lit.studies, I know what a big ask it can be for humanities subjects to ‘prove’ their applied worthiness and demonstrate how they are indeed going to save the world. So much of what is studied and concluded in these areas do not lend themselves to dissemination more broadly – or do they? Do you think we just need to think more on this point? I keep wondering whether I’m just not creative enough to find the engaging angle on my work that would be a nifty twitter contribution (for e.g.).


      • I dunno Tseen, I think a lot of the problems might be disciplinary – many people trained in science fields (for eg – I’m speaking broadly) can’t fathom the way we think in the humanities, & vice versa, though I’ve tried to straddle both science & humanities in my proposal. Maybe ask me that question again in another 5 years and I’ll be able to give you an answer then!


  3. An article in The Conversation this week about urban planning research not being used by policy-makers was a good example of researchers not providing findings in ways that are useful to policy-makers (at least, that’s how I see the responsibilities here). It’s at https://theconversation.com/not-a-lot-of-people-read-the-stuff-how-planning-defies-good-theory-38234
    All too often when I’m advising researchers on funding proposals I see wording about the research findings being of use to ‘decision-makers in government’ (or wording like that) while nothing in the communications or project plan indicates how those decision-makers would become aware of it and even who the expected policy-makers are. I look for ways that can be overcome: especially engaging with policy-makers early in the process and, ongoing, through mechanisms that suit them in particular.
    Engaging early can also show whether the idea has legs. I’ve seen researchers who are quite confident that what they are doing is important find themselves lost when their expected end-users says that, for example, they already have that data from other sources, or that the problem as defined by the researcher won’t produce information that can be used by the policy-maker. That reinforces the importance of listening to your potential end-users from the very beginning (which you might have seen me comment on before!)
    (Hey, Jessica – I actually rather like the idea of saving the planet through literature – although I admit I’m not too sure of the path to impact!)


    • Hi Miriam, I’m hoping it will be cumulative – I’m writing in the field of environmental humanities – maybe if there are enough people disseminating scholarship from this field we can turn a few heads before it’s too late!


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