Communicating Research on Global Change: How to engage policy-makers?

What is to be done? With a few strategies, this gap can be bridged...

What is to be done? With a few strategies, this gap can be bridged…

How to ‘Bell’ the policy ‘cats’? I posed – and tried to answer – this question in October 2013 when addressing a group of Asian research leaders gathered in Bangkok, Thailand.

It’s a question without easy or simple answers. Policy makers come in different forms and types, and gaining their attention depends on many variables — such as a country’s political system, governance processes, level of bureaucracy and also timing.

I revisited this question this week when speaking to a group of young (early to mid-career) researchers from across South Asia who want to study many facets of global change. They were brought together at a regional workshop held in in Paro, Bhutan, by the Asia-Pacific Network for Global Change Research (APN) and the National Environment Commission of the Royal Government of Bhutan.

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks at APN South Asian Proposal Development Training Workshop in Paro, Bhutan, 14-16 Dec 2016. Photo Xiaojun Deng, APN

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks at APN South Asian Proposal Development Training Workshop in Paro, Bhutan, 14-16 Dec 2016. Photo Xiaojun Deng, APN

Titled as the ‘Proposal Development Training Workshop (PDTW)’ and held from 14 to 16 December 2016, PDTW aimed “to raise awareness of APN among early career scientists and practitioners, and to increase the capacity to develop competitive proposals for submission to APN”.

The workshop involved two dozen researchers and half a dozen mentors. I was the sole mentor covering the important aspect of communicating research.

I urged researchers to try and better understand the imperfect, often unpredictable conditions in which South Asia’s policy makers operate.

Researchers and activists who would like to influence various public policies. Everyone is looking for strategies and engagement methods. The policy cycle cannot run according to text book ideals when governments have to regularly cope with economic uncertainties, political upheavals and social unrest, etc.

Asia-Pacific Network for Global Change Research (APN): Proposal Development Training Workshop 2016 — in Paro, Bhutan. Photo by Xiaojun Deng, APN

Asia-Pacific Network for Global Change Research (APN): Proposal Development Training Workshop 2016 — in Paro, Bhutan. Photo by Xiaojun Deng, APN

Imagine what keeps your policy makers awake at night, I suggested. Are they worried about balance of payment, disaster responses or a Parliamentary majority? How can research findings, while being evidence based, help solve problems of economic development and governance?

I also suggested that researchers should map out the information behaviour of their policy makers: where do they get info to act on? Is there a way research findings can be channeled to policy makers through some of these sources – such as the media, professional bodies and international development partners?

I suggested two approaches to communicating research outcomes to policy makers: directly, using own publications and/or social media; and indirectly by working with and through the media.

Finally, I shared some key findings of a global study in 2012 by SciDev.Net (where I was an honorary trustee for nearly a decade) which looked at the different contextual settings within which policy makers, the private sector, NGOs, media organisations and the research community operate to better understand how to mainstream more science and technology evidence for development and poverty reduction purposes.

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Belling the ‘Policy Cats’: How Can Communication Help? Talk to PEER Science Conference 2013

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks at PEER Science Conference 2013 in Bangkok, 3 Oct 2013

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks at PEER Science Conference 2013 in Bangkok, 3 Oct 2013

How to ‘Bell’ the policy ‘cats’?

This question is often asked by researchers and activists who would like to influence various public policies. Everyone is looking for strategies and engagement methods.

The truth is, there is no one sure-fire way — it’s highly situation specific. Policy makers come in many forms and types, and gaining their attention depends on many variables such as a country’s political system, governance processes, level of bureaucracy and also timing.

Perfecting the finest ‘bells’ and coming across the most amiable and receptive ‘cats’ is an ideal rarely achieved. The rest of the time we have to improvise — and hope for the best.

Good research, credible analysis and their sound communication certainly increase chances of policy engagement and eventual influence.

How Can Communications Help in this process? This was the aspect I explored briefly in a presentation to the PEER Science Participants’ Conference 2013 held in Bangkok, Thailand, from 1 to 4 Oct 2013.

It brought together over 40 principal investigators and other senior researchers from over a dozen Asian countries who are participating in Partnerships for Enhanced Engagement in Research (PEER) Science program. PEER Science is a grant program implemented by the (US) National Academies of Science on behalf of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and in cooperation with the National Science Foundation (NSF).

I spoke from my professional experience and long involvement in public communication of research, especially through the media. I referred to key conclusions of the International workshop on Improving the impact of development research through better communication and uptake, held in London, UK, in November 2010 where I was a panelist.

I flagged some key findings of a global study by SciDev.Net (where I am an honorary trustee) which looked at the different contextual settings within which policymakers, the private sector, NGOs, media organisations and the research community operate to better understand how to mainstream more science and technology evidence for development and poverty reduction purposes.

I like show and tell. To illustrate many formats and approaches available, I shared some of my work with LIRNEasia and IWMI, two internationally active research organisations for which I have produced several short videos (through TVE Asia Pacific) communicating their research findings and policy recommendations.

PowerPoint (with video links embedded):

Connecting researchers and the media: Easy as A, B and C?

L to R - Gerd Shonwalder (IDRC Canada), Faye Reagon (HSRC South Africa), Nalaka Gunawardene, Ann Waters-Bayer (ETC Netherlands) & Eliya Zulu (AIDP, Kenya)

What needs to be done to improve connections between researchers and the media?

This was the first of three questions posed to me as a panel member during the International workshop on Improving the impact of development research through better communication and uptake, held at the Institute of Civil Engineers, London, UK, on 29 and 30 November 2010.

The workshop, organised by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and the Australian Government Aid Programme (AusAid), brought together close to 100 research managers, science communicators and development donors from all regions of the world.

As always, I spoke from a practitioner’s perspective. Our panel was asked to discuss ‘different ways of making the links between research, policy and practice’. Each panel member was allowed 5 – 6 minutes of speaking time, with no PowerPoint or other visual aids.

I started off by flagging two fairly self-evident yet important points:
• Media is a PLURAL – there is no single recipe that works for all media because it is such a diverse sector!
• Media is only a SUB-SET of a wider process of communicating for social change.

Within this, there is always room for improvement! As a science journalist, I am a ‘critical cheerleader’ of researchers and their institutes. From that point of view, there are 3 elements that we need more of.
I call them A, B and C.

A is for Access: Today, 24/7 news cycles dominate the media landscape. That means, more often than not, journalists need quick and easy access to researchers, and rapid (or ‘live’) responses to breaking stories. Ideally, journalists want to talk to the researchers themselves, and not PR people or administrators within research institutes or universities.

B is for Bridges: To enable good access, we need strong and reliable links between researchers and the media. That can take many forms. They may be physical or virtual – including events, online platforms, and other activities. I see them as ‘Intersections’ where research, media and policy communities come together. These help share information, but also nurture trust –- that precious and rare virtue!

C is for Credibility: We’ve already heard how critical this element is to all our work as researchers and journalists. Credibility is something hard to earn, easy to lose. We can’t buy it – but good, long-term investments in people can help consolidate it.

I argued that these A, B and C can certainly help improve connections between researchers and the media, and ultimately, with the wider public.

London workshop panel, 29 Nov 2010