Five lessons for early career researchers in interacting with policymakers

By Aparna Lal

Aparna Lal
Aparna Lal (biography)

How, as an early career researcher, can you get started in developing a working relationship with government policy makers? What do you need to be prepared for? What benefits can you expect?

Here I present five lessons from my first self-initiated engagement with policymakers. I am a computer modeller exploring the links between water-quality, climate and health. As such, my research sits at the crossroads of environmental science and public health. At the end of 2018, I decided to present some of my work to the Australian Capital Territory Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate.

My anticipated outcomes from this presentation were to start a conversation around water and health in the Australian Capital Territory and to leave the meeting with new insights. I also learnt the following lessons:

  1. Learn to speak the policymakers’ language. One of the first comments I got following my presentation was “We don’t do health. You will be better off speaking to the Health Department”. This highlighted for me an important failing in my narrative. I had concentrated on the disease and epidemiology rather than the relationships with water quality indicators using terms they were familiar with. I was not speaking their language. Luckily, instead of shutting down further conversation, the comment led to an interesting discussion of how health research could fit within the Directorate’s current portfolios of maintaining water quality infrastructure.
  2. Highlight resources that policymakers might not be aware of. This is particularly pertinent when you are working at the intersection of two policy domains. In my case I was speaking to policymakers in the environment area and was able to alert them to useful health data for examining the relationships between water quality and health outcomes. In particular, my presentation provided a concrete example of how a pathogen that causes gastroenteritis and is easily spread through water may be an adequate proxy for ‘health’. This was a perspective that they hadn’t considered even though key performance indicators for water structure maintenance and increased investment included improved health and well-being of communities.
  3. Use the opportunity to identify useful research questions. Many of the questions following my presentation were ones that I did not have answers to. These included “how much does gastroenteritis related to dirty water cost the government?”, “are these costs offset by the value people place on blue space [inland surface waters] in their cities”? and “do people value their blue space or do they see it as a health risk?”. These questions helped me set future research directions and provided topics for collaborative funding applications.
  4. Be alert to ways of growing impact. A pleasant surprise was that the policymakers didn’t expect me to know it all; in fact, they offered me their expertise and advice on how to look at my work as part of a greater whole. This shift in my view alerted me to ways of making my impact grow.
  5. Embrace opportunities to expand partnerships. As a result of my first step in presenting my work to policymakers, they invited me to talk to the water industry. In addition, through a collaborative seed grant, the policymakers have linked me with community stakeholders and citizen science volunteers.

What lessons can you share about starting research relationships with policymakers, especially for early career researchers?

Biography: Aparna Lal PhD is an ecologist and public health researcher based at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, Research School of Population Health at The Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra, Australia. Her research focuses on the spatio-temporal modelling of relationships between environmental change, water quality and infectious disease outcomes.

Aparna Lal is a member of blog partner PopulationHealthXchange, which is in the Research School of Population Health at The Australian National University.

3 thoughts on “Five lessons for early career researchers in interacting with policymakers”

  1. Thanks Aparna, very useful points. One lesson I learnt is to identify and acknowledge our blindspots and potential differences. For example, preparation helps in learning policy makers language. Yet, it is not something we could master quickly especially at the beginning of our careers. In this case, I would approach my interactions with acknowledgement that language could create differences and encourage the group to actively identify and negotiate these differences on the way. I found this approach reflects humility and breeds trust because we are upfront about where we see potential risks to outcomes rather than caring too much about reflecting know-it-all attitude.

  2. Thank you for this very thoughtful and practical guide. I particularly love your first (learn to speak the language) and last (embrace opportunities to expand partnerships) points. Policy making and influence is about being part of a conversation through time, and like all good conversations it is about both the relationship you have and the value of the content you bring.


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