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Your Research Matters: Make It Accessible to Policymakers

I recently attended a U.S. Policy Communications workshop held by Population Reference Bureau to help prepare graduate students to influence policy and practice through effective communication. Here I share some of what I learned to encourage others to think about how they might use their research to inform policy discussions and decisions.

As researchers, we are trained to be careful about what we say about our research. At least within my own discipline, when we talk about the implications of our work, we typically limit it to suggestions of areas for future research. Trying to use our research findings to influence policies can seem like a daunting concept.

However, we learned in the workshop that if you want to engage in policy discussions, it helps to think of larger policy changes as an overall goal, but focus on the incremental steps along the way that are equally important in achieving these goals. This often starts out by building coalitions.

Find the Strength in Numbers

I’ll use a hypothetical, somewhat offbeat example to illustrate what I mean: Assume that your research has indicated that a large proportion of households do not have access to cat memes—those adorable short cat clips that are wildly popular on the internet—thus depriving many people of the fulfillment these memes provide. How can you use your research to ensure that more people see them?

Simply researching cat meme inequality and saying that it is a problem does not guarantee that your research will be acknowledged by decisionmakers. Instead, it may be more effective to organize meetings with a coalition of researchers who also believe that unequal access to cat memes is a societal problem.

Once you have your group members, a next step might be to identify other well-known organizations with fellow cat meme lovers who would like to begin holding conferences about the benefits of equal access to cat memes. Together, you can draw attention to the issue and get more people to reach out to influential decisionmakers to address cat meme inequality. This increased attention may even convince others to fund your initiative—often a necessary step in the process of enacting change.

Set an Objective and a Strategy

We also learned in the workshop that the key to influencing policy change is to identify and strategically take advantage of opportunities that may arise, especially if you are working within a network that shares a similar vision and is equally passionate about making these changes. Here are some tips provided at the workshop:

  • Set a policy goal, preferably one that you can measure, so you and others involved in communicating the research can determine if the goal has been met.
  • Identify who will benefit from achieving the goal and who is in a position to enact the changes required to achieve the goal. You also want to keep in mind those who will oppose your argument. Make sure you have strategies in place to either convince them to join your cause or at least minimize any roadblocks.
  • Identify who can help you achieve your goal, such as people or organizations that can either help find/test solutions, fund the project, and/or draw attention to the issue.
  • Identify windows of opportunity. Is there a political meeting or research conference relevant to your issue? Does your goal overlap with any nationally recognized policy goals―for example, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Are your policymakers voting on a bill that overlaps with your goal(s)?

We also learned two important things to consider so you can participate more effectively in the policy process:
Access. People need to be able to access your research. There are many ways to make it more accessible, including through presentations, blogs, op-eds, social media, and newspaper or magazine articles. Publishing in peer-reviewed journals is great for building your credibility and the credibility of the issue but many journal articles are behind a paywall. Even if journals are accessible for free, academic writing is often not well understood by a nontechnical audience. Consider sharing your research through different mediums.

Clarity. Your audience needs to be able to understand your research once they have access to it. To the extent possible, avoid technical jargon, abstract concepts, and terms that are primarily used or understood within your discipline. Of course, the degree to which you adapt your language will depend on the particular audience. Always research your audience and tailor your message accordingly.

Your research is important! So why not consider making it more accessible to a broader audience? Maybe it will end up in the hands of someone who can do something about your chosen issue.

 This article is adapted from the original post at https://stellamindemography.wordpress.com/.