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“Is anyone reading our work?”: what researchers want from policymakers

Observations from our first focus group.

“Policymakers seem to need answers yesterday,” reflected the young scientist from Italy. “That’s the direct opposite of how science works.”

We had grabbed him and a few other scientists, in Brussels last month for the conference (pdf), to pick their brains for the European Commission’s upcoming “Knowledge4Policy” (K4P) platform. And the young scientist had just put his finger on one of my pain points.

“Policymakers are firefighters, not long-term planners”

“Policymakers are firefighters, not long-term planners,” agreed the German science journalist to my left. “They need simple answers, right now. But scientists answer questions through multi-year, international research programmes. They’re totally different cultures.”

Bridging cultural gaps between science & policy

Finding ways to bridge that cultural divide is why we were sitting in a circle in the atrium of one of the buildings in Brussels occupied by my client, the Joint Research Centre, the EC’s in-house science service.

The JRC is responsible for designing and building the K4P Platform. While we aim to go live in a few weeks, we’re only launching a “Minimum Viable Platform” (MVP) pilot, as we need to first figure out the basics with a few “knowledge services” like the JRC’s Bioeconomy Observatory, who were organising the conference these scientists were attending.

Post-launch, we knew, they and others knowledge services were going to ask for more sophisticated online features: our consultations with them last year resulted in a wishlist featuring dynamic data visualisations, federated crosslingual search, multilingual semantic analysis, online communities of interest and practice, and other online exotica.

Many knowledge services, in particular, knew that the only way they could “organise scientific knowledge from across Europe, for policymakers across Europe”, was to get both scientists and policymakers across Europe involved. And that implies some sort of community of interest through which scientists could contribute knowledge (“Knowledge Push”), and policymakers could contribute their needs (“Need Pull”).

little concrete evidence that policymakers and scientists actually want these service… somewhat problematic for a Platform devoted to evidence for policy

The problem, however, was that these knowledge services had little concrete evidence that their audiences — policymakers and scientists — actually want these features, which is somewhat problematic for a Platform devoted to evidence for policy.

So in parallel to building the MVP, we launched an audience research project — ethnographic interviews, a targeted online survey and focus groups — to investigate what new features we should add post-launch.

The scientists’ viewpoint

Last month’s chat was the first focus group, and very much represented the scientists’ viewpoint — apart from the science journalist and one expert in public procurement, the others were all scientists.

Fortunately, none resembled anything like the (nonexistent) stereotype: dressed in a labcoat, bad hair and skin from endless months locked in the lab, supremely uninterested in the application of their research.

How does policymaking work?

Instead, all were intensely interested in seeing their research ‘taken up’ by policymakers, but most were at a bit of a loss as to how.

“I need to understand how policymaking works, so I can support it better”

The timing issue, above, is a barrier we had already identified— trying to ‘synch up’ two worlds operating at such different timescales is never going to be easy.

Is anyone reading our research?

But a problem I had not fully appreciated was the difficulty we’ll face in showing researchers that policymakers are listening.

“Are policymakers using our work? It’s very hard to tell if you don’t know them personally”

Any online community needs to make a credible promise to its members that the time they spend there is time well spent. We will not engage many scientists if we cannot show them that policymakers are using their content.

This is not a new challenge: good ‘feedback loops’ are critical for online communities. After all, how often would you post to Facebook if noone ever Liked, commented on or shared your posts?

There are solutions, but this may be particularly tricky for Knowledge4Policy, as policymakers (and their assistants) often dislike going on the record.

“Noone in politics wants to be reminded of what they knew before they ignored it”

Offline or Online?

For this reason, according to many in the focus group, their favoured route to getting their knowledge to policymakers was offline. Events, such as the one they had come to Brussels to attend, gave them and policymakers a shared and safe space for exchanging knowledge.

Moreover, the face-to-face contact at events then creates trust that allows knowledge exchanges to continue — but not, in most cases, in public.

Communities of Practice

This contrasts sharply with using online tools for building links between scientists — i.e., communities of practice, rather than communities of interest.

When seeking information, for example, focus group members preferred above all to reach out to their peers — other scientists they already know and trust. They believed that online communities which extend each member scientists’ trusted peer group was an obvious move, although most still thought that relationships need to be formed face-to-face first.

Finally, where they didn’t know anyone personally, the first ‘trust indicator’ they would look for — a sign that a given scientist should be approached for help — was the Institution s/he worked for, confirming the “people and organisations” approach we have been tentatively wireframing recently.

Protected spaces

The focus group painted a picture of how the K4P platform could complement and support physical events, building on the relationships created face-to-face and extending them into the online world.

If the focus group was right, these online communities will be science-oriented — helping create and manage knowledge — with additional content strategies needed to make that knowledge more relevant to policymakers.

However, the group did imagine that policymakers — and their assistants — could get involved in these communities if the online spaces were protected:

“You could launch a community around an event, and then create restricted Working Groups where attendees — who met face-to-face and therefore already trust each other — can continue the conversation afterwards”

What’s next?

But what do the policymakers think?

When we established the audience research project we wanted at least one focus group with a mix of scientists and policymakers. Logistics issues, however, meant we needed to find an event attended by both audiences, allowing us to invite them to a focus group on the event’s margins.

We didn’t find one — a good indication of how difficult it is to get policymakers and scientists working together.

a ‘drop in focus group’ at the European Parliament to find out what MEPs and their staff need

So next week we’re holding a ‘drop in focus group’ at the European Parliament to find out what MEPs and their staff need.

We’ll then combine the focus group, ethnographic interview and survey results together to set out a development programme for the year.

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