Nowhere research has failed so miserably to influence policy than in the sphere of international development. This is the domain where researchers and professionals from developed countries support or undertake ‘research for development’, with the hope that developing country policy makers use internationally supported research to make or improve policies.
Summary for policy makers
It’s been over three decades since researchers seriously began to write policy briefs in the sphere of international development. After producing large volumes of research reports that have been shelved without much impact, they realised the need to write a short summary of their research, outlining key policy related messages and recommendations.
Now this tradition is epitomised by the Inter Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) publishing ‘summary for policy makers’ after global scientific assessments. As a result of such policy message turn in research for development, researchers and Think Tanks from across the world have produced a plethora of policy briefs based on policy research. These cover every sector and topic of development, from health to environment. But are policy makers really reading and responding to all those policy reports meant to help them? Obviously, not to the extent expected.
Continuing divide between research and policy
My experience shows short policy briefs produced by research organisations are still too technical and presented in the language and framework of the research. There is still a huge gap between the ways policy makers harness knowledge and researchers think policy reports should be crafted.
There is a huge difference between the ways researchers and policy makers think about and frame socio-environmental problems. Researchers emphasise questioning assumptions and generating new justified beliefs. Unlike research, policy makers look for ideas and solutions that can help them make decisions. Researchers’s messages in policy briefs are often framed as ‘policy implications’ of their research findings.
This means policy makers find research reports treating decision problems as after-thoughts, and hence not helpful in solving problems. There is a clear disconnect between policy actors’ expectations and the content offered by researchers for the benefit of policy makers.
Many researchers are aware of this problem. I am intrigued to see a lack of innovation on how research findings could be crafted better as policy messages. In the entire industry of knowledge, either researchers or policy makers dominate. There is no established role for knowledge brokers yet. El Gore’s work to communicate IPCC findings is one innovative example of communicating science to the wider public.
Don’t leave the job to intermediaries alone
There is a role for boundary workers but I think researchers should also become more policy smart in communicating their work. They have greater authenticity to get their research message heard.
Of course, not every research has an aim to contribute to policy – so not all researchers need to think about communicating research to the policy community. But a large majority of research does have a goal to contribute to innovation and development, which can not be achieved without influencing policy in some way.
Confronting this challenge, IFSD team is researching how policy messages could be crafted better. We are hoping to suggest some generic strategies for better crafting policy briefs or summary for policy makers. IFSD is putting some efforts into it because if we find ways to present the research message rightly, policy makers are likely to buy-in the message to decisions and then through implementation.
After all, policy makers have the power to make a difference, which researchers do not have. Any powers researchers have is mostly through their ability to influence policies and practices. So why not we put some thinking into this? And why not we attempt to write for impact and not just for self-promotion?