Five lessons for early career researchers in interacting with policymakers

Community member post 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.

Linking collective impact to the characteristics of open living systems

Community member post by Lewis Atkinson

Lewis Atkinson (biography)

How can communities most effectively achieve collective impact, moving from fragmented action and results to collective action and deep, durable systems change? In particular, what can those seeking to understand the characteristics required for collective impact learn from the characteristics of open living systems?

In this blog post I link five characteristics for collective impact, based on Cabaj and Weaver (2016) with 12 characteristics of open living systems drawn from Haines (2018, building on the work of Ludwig von Bertalanffy). Continue reading

Ten things to know about how to influence policy with research

Community member post by Helen Tilley, Louise Shaxson, John Young, and Louise Ball

Helen Tilley (biography)

How can research influence public policy so that it is based on the best-available evidence? What different ways of working are required of researchers? Here are 10 things researchers from the UK’s Overseas Development Institute have found helpful.

1. Know what you want to influence

Being clear about the policy issue, theme or process you want to change is the first step to effective policy influencing. Are you looking to influence legislation, or a change in government policy? You might want to encourage greater investment in a certain programme or approach, or a change in practice. You might want to influence perceptions or attitudes, or the language people use around an issue. Continue reading

Building a research impact culture

Community member post by Louise Shaxson

Louise Shaxson (biography)

What sort of research culture underpins effective research impact on policy and practice change?

As part of a research program on inclusive economic growth in low-income countries, we commissioned four case studies to help understand how researchers had engaged with policymakers and practitioners and what happened as a result. We were particularly interested to understand whether specific types of knowledge activity (simply providing the information, translating knowledge, brokering it within the policy environment, or facilitating innovative approaches to engagement) led to different types of impact.

We found no clear links between the type of knowledge activity and type of impact. Instead, five cross-cutting issues emerged that we think speak more to how getting the research culture right can foster different and sometimes unexpected types of impact. Continue reading

Practical tips to foster research uptake

Community member post by Emily Hayter and Verity Warne

Emily Hayter (biography)

How can researchers and policy makers work together to foster more systematic uptake of research in policy making?

In a series of workshops at the European Commission Joint Research Centre’s Evidence and Policy Summer School on migration and demography, participants identified some of the most critical stages where scientists and policymakers interact: problem definition, research process, and communication of results. We then built up a bank of practical ideas and suggestions for each stage. Continue reading

Tracking stakeholder engagement and research impact

Community member post by Cathy Day

Cathy Day (biography)

Is there an easy and efficient way to keep track of stakeholder engagement and research impact?

My colleagues and I have developed a system with two components: (1) noting engagement and impact soon after they occur and (2) recording them in a way that enables the information to be extracted for whatever purpose is required. I describe the tracking spreadsheet, the recording process we use and then how the spreadsheet is used for reporting.

Tracking spreadsheet

The Microsoft Excel tracking spreadsheet has two parts: (1) the engagement or impact and (2) the research to which these are related. These are arranged in columns, which can be adapted for the needs of any particular group. Continue reading