Scientific results can’t really have a big impact on practice and policy unless it is disseminated outside the research context. Still, even when you do your best to share your latest findings in presentations at practice oriented events, press releases, newsletters or blogs, it can all be for nothing if policy makers never even find it and know what to do with it. That is why Marco and me were glad to have the opportunity to present the interim findings of all SOONER research to policy makers of the ministry of education, culture and science last month. It is a good thing when both researchers and policy makers reach out to each other to at least start a dialogue. Making an effort to do this is important. However, this is not always that straightforward. These are some of my thoughts as a reflection on the places where science meets policy, and where difficulties can come from in my experience…
Multiple sources of information in a policy world – Although it is common practice that scientific results are published and peer-reviewed and this is often seen as a good standard for evidence, it is not the only source of information that is relevant to policy making. I think often policy makers have a wider definition of ‘evidence’, and it stretches much further than only academic evidence. The results of our scientific research and insights gained from that, have to compete with all sorts of information sources, including media, national organizations, stakeholders from practice, semi-governmental organizations and non-profit organizations etc.. These can all be considered as useful by policy makers. What I at least hope is that science has a place in this forest of information, and that from a policy side, efforts are made to gain knowledge from a sometimes complicated, yet evidence based message. I know, from my own experience that it is sometimes quite hard to translate scientific articles and findings into comprehensible pieces of information, often because findings can be broad, very context specific, complex and embedded in theories and models that might seem very far away from the real world. What I do not hope is that, even if the message is sometimes a little complicated, that it is ignored for this reason. It is easy to hop on a buzzword train, to go for the information that is ready to use and easily understandable. However, the buzz-word train is not always the most reliable in terms of evidence for practice or credibility. I hope, on the one side that scientists and researchers at least make an effort to make a comprehensible translation of their findings. On the other side I also hope that policy makers make an effort to comprehend our message and aim for a structural and critical way to be informed (regardless of the source by the way). Hopefully we can meet each other somewhere in the middle.
The value of credibility – As I said, I hope that policy makers act as critical appraisers of the information they use to design policy, and look for credibility. However, sometimes for people outside of research (and also inside for that matter) it can be a big challenge to know how to appraise research. What kind of data are you looking at? Where did it come from? How was it collected? In what context? What instruments are used? Do these make sense? What analysis were used? What do these mean in terms of the findings? How does this relate to practice and policy? Is it relevant and applicable? And so on… Although one may assume that academic evidence can be seen as a quite solid source of information, there is still a variety in applicability of research towards policy and practice and also in quality of how results came about. I think there is not one truth, and academic results can also be seen in very different lights, from various standpoints. I hope both scientists and policy makers are constantly aware of this, and stay critical towards credibility.
Getting noticed – It is also a challenge to be noticed as a researcher by policy makers, and not only because of the broader definition of ‘evidence’ that policy makers use as explained above. I think it also has to do with the fact that in order to get noticed, you need to have some understanding of the legislative process underlying the policies that are being made. Both in a formal way but also informally. Formally this entails some knowledge about steps being taken and timescales for when evidence should be submitted. Informally this includes knowledge about relevant stakeholder groups and maybe even think tanks that may not be so formally defined, but are of big relevance to the sourcing of input for policy makers, to appear on their radar. It is kind of: be there or be square… If you can’t find the right time, people and places to show up with your input, you won’t reach much impact with it… Individuals or organizations that are more adapted to this process, that know the timing and places to be in order to get noticed, have a bigger chance to have impact. I think for researchers, and especially for junior researchers like myself that it is a big challenge to engage in this, and to appear on any policy related radar.
Summing up: It is a challenge for both policy makers and researchers to get on each other’s radar and make the most out of each other’s knowledge and positions. Nevertheless, from a researchers side, I think we can all make a start by trying to share our work in a more comprehensible way. This first step does not have to be big. Just try to make an effort to share your findings with the world, whether it’s through a press release from your institute, a short blog post or even a post on Twitter. Here is my two cents, the slides from our interim SOONER presentation. Please get me on your radar for any further explanations or questions, I am happy to talk to you.