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One of the most powerful vehicles for research impact is policy change. So it’s not surprising that one of the FAQs that we’re often asked is how researchers can influence policy-makers. We thought it would be helpful to summarise the general advice we would normally give on this topic.
This post is based on content we delivered during the June 2023 RED Researcher Development intensive.
What is meant by “policy change”?
By “policy”, we mean any rule or directive that applies to a designated group of people (e.g. “Victorians”, “nurses”, or “drivers”). New state or federal legislation is obviously top of the list but it’s not the only example. Another route is partnership with a government department or agency to collect and analyse data, or conduct evaluation. Evidence of impact could also include citation by a Royal Commission, Select Committee or United Nations report. Alternatively, your research findings may inform the development of industry or clinical guidelines. Here we’re focusing mainly on the political but the principles are applicable elsewhere.
If you don’t think your research will change the minds of those in power, you can derive impact from data and/or advice supplied to inform evidence-based campaigns run by opposition or minor parties, advocacy groups, peak bodies, NGOs or specialist committees. If the campaign is successful – that’s a bonus!
Connecting with policy-makers
Influencing policy is equivalent to commercialising your research and requires cross-sector relationship-building. The main reason cited by policy-makers for selecting an academic to approach for advice is “Other people I work with are connected”, closely followed by “I had an existing contact”. Conversely, academics find that the main barrier to communicating research is “Not having contacts”, or “Contacts have moved on”.
So, how do you get yourself into the right people’s little black books? Here are a few things that can help:
- Get to know who’s who. This could include local government, advisory channels, agencies and departments. Who is likely to be receptive to your recommendations?
- Know the major policy issues in your field, and understand the policy development process.
- Introduce yourself!
- Leverage existing contacts and academic collaborations.
- LinkedIn can be a great resource, especially for sharing your work in alternative formats.
- Ensure you have a policy brief available, or can whip it up at short notice (see next section)
- Don’t waste anyone’s time chasing unresponsive contacts.
The policy brief [see slide]
A policy brief is a document that summarises a topic for a non-academic audience, and includes recommendations that could help with decision-making.
The image below features the key parts of a policy brief – we know it’s too small to see the detail so VIEW THE HIGHER RES SLIDE HERE.
How do you know if you’ve been successful?
In many cases, your personal relationships and networks will inform you but sometimes you might not be able to track the effects of your contribution directly, or you may not be able to trust what contacts are telling you. If cause and effect cannot be reliably determined, consider applying network mapping or to make an argument according to probability. You could also take an outcome harvesting approach, i.e. working backwards from an event to determine its contributory catalysts.
For more advice on evaluating policy impact, see How do I monitor, evaluate and learn about policy engagement? (developed in collaboration with LTU’s own Prof. Chris Roche and Dr Ujjwal Krishna).
When negotiating delivery of a report, always build in a mechanism for following up after 12 or 24 months to find out how your recommendations have been received and/or implemented. Suggest a follow-up contract for evaluation, if applicable.
Overton Policy Index
To find out whether your research is being cited by policy-makers, check out the Overton Policy Database. Overton cross-references your publications with over 7 million Australian and international policy sources, including legislation, white papers, briefings, clinical guidelines, and more.
La Trobe now has a subscription to this fantastic new resource, so to register for an account or find out more about how Overton can help track your policy impact, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
 George Slim (Office of the PM’s Chief Science Advisor, NZ). Survey of academics and policy-makers: enablers. Unpublished
Having worked in research management since 2016, Helen completed her PhD at Oxford University in 2012, where she was based at the Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama. She subsequently held a Junior Research Fellowship at St Hilda's College, Oxford, followed by a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship (2014-16).
In a research administration capacity, she was previously Research Bids Manager at Roehampton University in London. In 2020-21, she led the team responsible for implementing OPAL (Open@LaTrobe), the university's Open Access platform.