Building your impact: 8 ways to communicate policy-relevant research

Heidi Pettersson

In an increasingly crowded and complicated international policy-space, what can academics do to bring their research to the attention of policy-makers? How does one bridge the gap between the scholarly and policy-making communities; a gap that remains surprisingly large given the benefits that both communities could gain from interacting more with each other?

As a journal editorial team we were delighted to see these questions being considered at the recent International Studies Association convention (ISA 2017), a yearly gathering of some 5,500 academics, think tank staff, publishers and others working in the field of international studies. International Affairs’ vision is precisely to act as one bridge-builder over this gap; we publish research that combines academic rigour with policy relevance — often in the form of concrete policy recommendations — written in a jargon-free, accessible style. We are interested in learning more about not only how scholars create, but also communicate and promote, policy-relevant research. Here are the key takeaways on these topics from discussions at ISA 2017.

1. Be passionate about and genuinely interested in your topic.

This is a key message to young scholars who are still shaping their career path: being policy-relevant is a long-term endeavour and you will be much happier not only conducting your research, but also talking about it, tweeting about it, blogging about it, if it is on a topic that you truly feel passionate about. This will come across in your outputs and you are more likely to have an impact on those you are hoping to influence.

2. Learn to convey deep knowledge in plain language.

Whether you are writing summary reports for policy-makers, blog posts for a wide general audience or are invited to comment on a current event relating to your area of expertise on a news programme, you must be able to succinctly explain complex information in clear and jargon-free language to an audience who does not have all the background information you do.

3. Organize launch events or briefings aimed at policy-makers.

It may be easier to get policy-makers to listen, than to read. If possible, organize launch events for papers/reports and invite a broad audience including journalists and policy-makers. It may also be worth teaming up with a leading think-tank in your country/area, to reach their existing networks. This can be an effective way to reach junior and mid-level government officials, but more senior officials are more likely to attend a briefing arranged at their place of work.

4. Build your network.

Strong working relationships with policy-makers are essential. Reach out to people by email with a short summary of your research findings; follow up by suggesting meeting over a coffee. Networking opportunities organized by young leaders/scholars groups can also be useful; some of the people you meet may be on the path to highly influential positions.

5. Learn from the policy-making community.

It’s a two-way street: you should not expect policy-makers to take note of your work without making sure that you have a full understanding of policy processes relating to your field of study. Networking with policy-makers can result in mutually beneficial relationships: they may also find sounding ideas off you very helpful. Being appointed to a task force or similar can be one of the most effective ways to have impact, and fosters mutual understanding and learning.

6. Get as much mileage as possible out of one piece of research.

Don’t forget about a piece of research once you have published it in an academic journal. A journal article is a good starting point, but you should then use it as a base to build on: write blog posts for influential blogs such as The Monkey Cage or War on the Rocks, among others; write op-eds and try to place them in leading newspapers; promote your research on social media; and reach out to policy-makers as described above.

7. Use Twitter.

If you are just getting started on Twitter, it’s a good idea to build a reputation for expertise by tweeting or retweeting things that people find useful — then you can start including your own work. Social media may also serve a purpose as a starting point for research: tweeting or posting on a blog can be a way of testing the waters to see whether a certain topic is of interest and what the response is. A 2014 survey of US-based journalists found that 59% of respondents used social media to generate story ideas, suggesting that platforms such as Twitter can act as a powerful outreach tool.

8. Be strategic.

There exist today numerous outlets for communicating research findings, particularly in the online sphere. Some researchers may be tempted to try to place blog posts, op-eds and other pieces on as many media as possible, but it is worth considering which media are likely to have the most impact and are most respected in your particular field and to focus on those. Be careful where you put your name, and also learn to say no — you can’t do everything and ‘quality, rather than quantity’ is often a good rule of thumb in this regard.

You might say, ‘it’s all well and good to follow these guidelines, but how do I know if my work actually has had any impact?’ The short and rather disappointing answer is: quite often it’s difficult to know. However, a few good indicators include:

  • policy-makers citing your work;
  • being asked to join a government/international organization task force;
  • being contacted by government agencies about your work;
  • being contacted by media about your work;
  • and your work being (re)tweeted by policy-makers.

We at International Affairs will continue to do our bit to foster dialogue and engagement between academics and policy-makers, by publishing policy-relevant academic articles and promoting them to a wide audience through various online media and events. Do consider submitting your policy-relevant article to the journal, and please let us know your best tips for achieving policy-relevance in the comment field below!

Heidi Pettersson is the Managing Editor of International Affairs.

Much of the advice in this blog was gleaned at a specific ISA committee panel entitled, ‘Making an impact: how to create and communicate policy-relevant research.’ Our thanks go to the following panellists for their insightful contributions and willingness to see their ideas made public:

If you are interested in submitting research to International Affairs then click here for our Author Guidelines.

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