To Influence Policy, Link Arms, Step Up, and Leverage Opportunities

The idea of research to policy is a dated concept. Science is not the only source of evidence. Decisions, especially complex policy decisions, are based on values, beliefs, experience, reasoning, and ultimately compromise. Evidence can influence policy and does. But policy, in the end, is rarely based solely on evidence. And research studies are only one form of evidence.

In politics, research evidence is sought and used for many different purposes by many different contributors to the political process at all levels of government. To increase the use of research evidence in policymaking, researchers need to be both more relevant and more savvy. They need to embrace the gray areas that exist between the pristine world of academia and the presumed seedy side of political “sausage making.” These ideas were included in the wealth of practical advice I had the recent pleasure of hearing from Jeffrey Henig, professor of political science and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and the author of Spin Cycle, when he spoke to a group of researchers.

There are reasons why researchers don’t naturally “step up.” Kenneth Maton, author of Influencing Social Policy: Applied Psychology Serving the Public Interest, found that the most influential researchers don’t just do excellent research, they opt to do relevant research that addresses the knowledge gaps change agents—i.e., policymakers, practitioners, advocates, lawyers—have identified. They take the time to move messages out well beyond academic journals. They build relationships and partnerships related to issues broader than their particular research projects. They develop information on program effectiveness and cost-effectiveness. And last but not least, they persist, understanding that influencing policy takes time.

Not every researcher has the time, talents, or temperament to be individually influential. This is why Henig’s practical advice is so important. The space between academic researchers and policymakers is not a void that individual academic researchers should try to fill alone. Researchers will have faster, bolder progress towards getting research evidence more valued and better used if they commit to: 1) working collectively with other researchers and 2) working with others—from applied research centers to issue-focused research brokers to advocates—who span the space between academic research and policy.

The space between academic researchers and policymakers is not a void that individual academic researchers should try to fill alone.

Working collectively requires more than just cooperation. It requires a commitment to building a collective infrastructure for researchers. Henig offered five organizing principles which I have paraphrased:

  • Think strategically about alliance and constituency building. Band together: Individual research studies are not as powerful as broad bodies of evidence. Work with others: look beyond policymakers to forge relationships with those who can benefit from the research. Keep these partners informed and listen to their suggestions while asking for their support.
  • Build a power base. Tap down the natural academic reluctance to recognize that power matters. Figure out who, within the research community, has the most influence and access. Lift them up, learn from them, and use them strategically.
  • Build constituencies among the broader public. Commit time and energy to summarize important research themes—including research debates—and get them into public discourse in ways that stick and spread.
  • Allow for (and acknowledge) diversity of opinion within the research community. Be clear, but be honest and specific. Don’t oversimplify, overpromise, or overgeneralize. Demonstrate the art of scientific disagreement where difference of opinion has important policy implications. Assuage the sometimes justified concerns that research findings are framed or cherry-picked to support partisan policies or positions.
  • Assert discipline on how to organize and mobilize. Rally the power base around key issues and elements that could either threaten or solidify the value and utility of research. Be selective. Don’t squander opportunities on small or temporal issues.

These are important but heady principles to activate. Henig’s advice is not to create more infrastructure for coordinating research proposals and research findings (e.g. What Works Clearinghouses). It is to create broader and more robust infrastructure for coordinating researchers around strategies and topics that matter not for their specific careers, but for the overall protection and promotion of the value and use of research evidence in politics, policy development, and decision making.

There are success stories to build on (e.g. the consortium of early childhood development researchers and brokers brought together by funders, supported by the Frank Gilliam and the Frameworks Institute). Equally important, there is a complementary infrastructure to connect to, which includes other individuals and organizations with a commitment to using research evidence to inform policy.

There is a chain of research brokers between individual academic researchers and policymakers. University-based research centers are physically and constitutionally closest to academic researchers who staff and often lead them. These centers have outward facing infrastructure that operationalize many of the principles Henig outlined. Next in line are free-standing research institutions (e.g. the Urban Institute, American Institutes of Research) and federally funded research and technical assistance centers whose jobs, in large part, are to conduct policy research studies and translate these and academic studies for policy and practice audiences.

Midway between academia and policymakers are the large group of “intermediary” organizations that synthesize and curate academic research studies for the specific purpose of informing policy agendas. Admittedly, the neutrality and credibility of these organizations varies. Some are sought out by policymakers because they have a reputation for being “honest brokers” of research. Others use research more selectively to support broadly adopted policy positions. Closest to policymakers—and for this reason often less trusted by them—are advocates and lobbyists who may have the strongest power bases, broadest constituencies, and best messaging capacities, but are the least likely to acknowledge and support the diversity of opinion within the research community.

There are many reasons that academic researchers, individually and collectively, should use the “broker chain” to accelerate the value and use of research evidence. There is likely an equal number of reasons why academic researchers should be cautious. Now that we have an established body of research on when, why, and how policymakers use and don’t use research evidence, perhaps it is time to generate research on how policymakers receive and use information from different types of research brokers, and when, why, and how academic researchers develop relationships with these brokers.


Karen Pittman is co-founder, President, and CEO of the Forum for Youth Investment.

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