Top ways researchers achieve policy impacts

By Mark Reed and Sarah Buckmaster

Earlier this year, HEFCE published a searchable database of impact case studies, collected as part of its evaluation of UK research under their Research Excellence Framework (REF). We took a 5% sample of impacts on social (including health), economic and environmental policy, and classified the different pathways to impact that the researchers identified (you can read the full results in the table below). The most commonly cited impact pathways make interesting reading:

1.    Publications: as you might expect, the number one pathway described by researchers in their case studies was academic publications, typically in peer-reviewed journals. Given that most case studies contained multiple pathways, the role that academic publications played in achieving impact is debatable. Also in the top ten pathways however were industry publications and policy briefs, underlining the importance of translating academic findings into formats that are more likely to be read by non-academics

2.   Advisory roles: being asked to contribute to Government inquiries, reports, panels and committees was one of the most important ways that researchers influenced policy, with over 50% of the case studies we reviewed using this pathway

3.   Media coverage: researchers perceived that getting their research covered in the mass media was an important route to policy impact. This might be because of the visibility that media coverage can afford research, putting it directly in front of decision-makers who engage with the media (themselves or because they are made aware of media coverage by their civil servants), or more indirectly be contributing to a body of public opinion that decision-makers then respond to

4.   Partnerships and collaborations with industry and NGOs: by finding organisations that shared their research interests, researchers may have been able to harness the lobbying power of these organisations to promote their work more actively and at higher levels than they would have had the time, resources and ability to do as researchers on their own. These partnerships also enabled researchers to test their research in real-life situations, which gave it more credibility when approaching policy makers

5.   Presentations with industry, the public and Government: face-to-face meetings, whether one-to-one or in workshops and conferences, can be a powerful way to get research findings noticed and understood, partly because the audience has the opportunity to question the research team. Although researchers cited presentations directly to Government, they were just as likely to cite presentations to industry and the public as their pathway to policy impacts. This may suggest, like the previous point, that many impacts were achieved via the knowledge brokerage role of industry partners, or by raising the public profile and contributing towards a weight of public opinion that policy-makers could not ignore

6.   Developing easily accessible online materials based on the research was also a commonly cited pathway to policy impact. Although this is rapidly changing with open access, a significant proportion of research findings (particularly older material) is behind journal paywalls. Making this material both available and easily accessible via online materials that translate the findings for specific audiences can be an important way of getting research into policy.

It is clear that by far the most important pathway was advisory roles. Although these roles are sometimes one-off interactions, for example giving evidence to a parliamentary committee, many are medium to long-term roles over a period of years, in which the researchers are able to build trust with other panel/committee members and provide advice on an ad hoc basis between formal meetings. Apart from this however, the majority of the main pathways were in dissemination mode. Although partnerships and collaborations with industry and NGOs feature strongly in the pathways reported by researchers in these case studies, these appear to primarily have operated as knowledge brokers, helping to translate and amplify messages arising from the research, and enabling them to reach policy-makers.

It is clear from the case studies we reviewed that well-targeted dissemination of research findings can pay dividends, but if the experience of these researchers is anything to go by, certain types of dissemination may be more likely to achieve impact, for example publications, online resources, press releases and presentations. But it is just as important to invest in longer-term relationships with the policy community and key players who have the time, resources and expertise to help you form those relationships and amplify your message. In the long-term, this may open opportunities to contribute to advisory committees and other processes that directly feed into the policy process.