Three lessons for policy engagement

By Emily Hayter

Emily Hayter (biography)

How can researchers be supported in communicating their research and in supporting policymakers to use research and evidence? Are there particular issues for researchers in the global south?

The three lessons presented here are based on the experience of INASP (International Network for Advancing Science and Policy), an international development organisation which has been working with a global network of partners in Africa, Latin America and Asia for nearly 30 years.

1. Policy engagement needs to build mutual understanding between researchers and policymakers as actors in a system (the ‘how’)

The research/policy space is not quite the chasm it is often presented as, needing a ‘bridge’ to cross between two distinct groups. It is actually more of an interface, with lots of nuances and grey areas, and a wide range of brokering organisations. This is why we generally prefer to use the term ‘policy engagement’ (rather than the many other terms such as research uptake or policy influence), because it emphasises a two-way dialogue and collaboration.

Although the communication of research findings is a critical part of policy engagement, it is only one part of a wider process. And this wider process can often be an ongoing, messy, iterative, collaborative process that researchers need to consider at the beginning of a research project.

For effective policy engagement and collaboration between researchers and policymakers, we have learned it is important for them to be able to put themselves in each others’ shoes.

2. Strengthening productive collaboration (‘the what’)

Dialogue is a critical element of policy engagement, but policy engagement can and should go beyond this to co-create practical solutions— whether by teaming up to strengthen the evidence base of a climate change policy or collaboratively developing a national research agenda.

The most exciting opportunities are those which are founded on co-creation and which push the boundaries of both research and policy making.

We see policy engagement as part of a transdisciplinary research approach, fostering connections across academic disciplines and including the active participation of a wide range of stakeholders.

3. The research/policy interface is not a power-neutral space (the ‘who’)

It is important to ask who is left out of the research/policy interface and why. For example, our organisation INASP had, for a long time, focused on inequities between North and South, but in recent years we have been focusing more on inequities within and between Southern research systems.

We are still learning about these inequities but are aware of particular challenges experienced by specific groups such as women researchers, early-career researchers, and those who are based in ‘non apex’ institutions, ie., those who are based outside capital cities and who are not seen as the preferred people to fund or provide with access to networks of influence.

Where next?

We think digital technologies can play a particular role in helping researchers acquire the skills to engage better with those in policy and practice. By using digital technologies organisations such as ours can increase the reach of our work and support learning at greater scale. And digital technologies can also create new opportunities for peers to learn and collaborate across institutions and across countries, as well as to ensure that equity and inclusion continue to be central and to ensure new voices and ideas are brought to bear.

What has your experience been in supporting policy engagement by researchers? Do our lessons resonate? Do you have others to share? Do you have insights about overcoming inequities in policy engagement by researchers, especially in the Global South?

This blog post has been adapted from Hayter, E. and Nobes, A. (2021). Three things we have learned about policy engagement. International Network for Advancing Science and Policy (INASP). (Online): This also provides links to more of INASP’s work.

Biography: Emily Hayter is an INASP (International Network for Advancing Science and Policy) Associate and has more than 12 years’ experience in programme design and management, as well as capacity development/adult learning and research.

6 thoughts on “Three lessons for policy engagement”

  1. Thanks for a great post. I am new to policy engagement (although I have been thinking about policy for a long time in sustainability research) so this is very helpful. I have found that often community voices are missing from the research/policy interface. Research institutions and governments need to get much better at involving the people who are most effected by policy into the conversation. And I mean going beyond a ‘have your say’ survey or town hall meetings.

  2. Thanks Rrashad, Jeff and David for your insights and tips. Rrashad, if there are any specific resources you can point to that you’ve found helpful I’m sure the AuthorAid community that INASP facilitates would be interested to know more, as I think there is a lively discussion going on there about this topic too!

    For more about AuthorAid see;

  3. Thank you Emily for your excellent article.

    For sure, lessons learned from INASP initiatives in the Global South resonate and they consider a framework that should govern serious multidisciplinary dialogues for a true use of research evidence in policy based on the mutual understanding between researchers and policymakers.

    From my work experience in Asia and Africa, and as you pointed out, early and frequent policymaker engagement into a project can form the underlying conditions under which a project is likely to succeed. It is a critical and vital iterative process and should be practiced from the preparation phase till end of project. The good thing is that there are numerous tools, methods and effective techniques for such complex challenges-involving interactions amongst researchers and policymakers. In my case, I found and used many applicable co-innovation conceptual frameworks and policymakers’ participation spectrum that can be adapted.

    I see researchers and private sector can always go smoothly with the needed digital transformations, but for policymaker in many places in Global South, it is a challenge because they often work in silos, missing a lot of opportunities to engage with the researches, and they need more efforts and different specified methods to address what skills and digital technologies tools they might need for better connectivity and dialogues too.

    Thanks very much again for sharing, it is really lovely piece of work!

  4. Interesting and mportant points, and really well summarised. Point 1, building mutual understanding is critical, but from my experience (government agencies, Ministerial advisor, researcher, research manager, NGO director, university professor) I would suggest that it is essential to go beyond understanding to building trust between researchers and policymakers. Researchers need a safe space to present the outcomes of their work ‘without fear or favour’ and policymakers need to be able to go about their business without concerns about hidden agendas.

  5. Having played various roles at the research/policy interface over the last 50 years I toss in a few quick thoughts. First, find the relevant policy makers that have expertise in your research area. Even in general policy settings like a legislature, each member specializes in a few issues. This may also be true at the technical agency level as well.

    Second, most major policy issues are a debate between disagreeing sides, often an acrimonious debate. You need to find the side that your research supports. You also must be prepared to be attacked by the other side. That is the price of playing the policy game. Being political in nature, these attacks can get personal. This is not like peer review.

    Third, you may want to interface with an advocacy organization, rather than policy makers. Finding, sifting and conveying research is often a key job of such organizations.

    Finally, I agree that technology can make all of this a lot easier and more effective. I have done research for policy makers I never met, except perhaps a phone call at the beginning, if that. Things like gender, status, age and such tend to be far less important in these cases than they might be in physical meetings. The research becomes the focus.


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