How do timings work in the policy world?
A great deal is made of the fact that policy and research work to different timescales. There is some truth in the idea that ‘quickly’ in academic terms means an 18-month review of existing literature and in policy it means now or, preferably, sooner. However, it is also possible to overplay this idea. There are policy challenges that would benefit from academic insights that have been constant challenges for all governments for 50 years and more. Similarly, the Scottish Government and other bodies set out their plans for the year ahead – and to some extent until the next election – so it is possible to plan. It is true, however, that some parts of working with policy can require working to very tight timescales.
Time to solve a policy problem
There are policy problems that have been around for twenty years, fifty years, or even longer. Those areas of policy that are under the political spotlight at any given time may demand very rapid action but that is a slim minority of the responsibilities of government at any given time.
In this context, it is important to understand the sorts of insights scholars are being invited to share. Of course there is huge value in primary research that has been peer reviewed and published. But this is often not available at the exact moment it is needed by the policy world. This means that policymakers are looking for expert opinion and scholarly analysis; often drawing together existing research and attempting to reach conclusions based on what we do know rather than agonising about what we don’t. The very fact that academics have taken months or years or decades to look at a problem is their greatest asset in the policy sphere as this allows them the richness of understanding to draw those conclusions.
How do you identify the right timing?
In practical terms, the When? Of policy engagement can be broken down into two parts – a big When? and a little When?. The big When? relates to career stage, meaning when is the best time in your academic career to contribute to policy discussions. The little When? relates to the best time in the policy calendar.
Identify your career moment
It is easy to assume that only a select few get to engage with policy; the media has some of the blame for shaping who we consider to be an expert, but so do hierarchies in higher education.
It is absolutely not the case that policy professionals only want to hear from a handful of senior professors.
For some scholars, their policy moment may last an hour, for others it may span an entire career. The determining factor is far more likely to be that the policy is ‘buying what you’re selling’. That is as likely to happen when you are a PhD candidate or post-doc as when you’re a distinguished professor.
From the perspective of the policy community, they want both scholars who can bring a breadth and depth of understanding grounded in decades of scholarship and also younger scholars conducting more fine-grained investigations or working at the cutting edge of research.
Seize the day!
Often when we talk about the little When? of picking the right time in the policy calendar, we are thinking in terms of avoiding mistakes such as missing the deadline of a parliamentary inquiry by waiting for an article to be published.
Let us say that you are Professor of Cabbages at the University of Campus. You have just completed a five-year study, which has just been published in the International Journal of Brassica Studies and you reach out to the clerk of the Scottish Parliament’s Fruit and Vegetable Committee. The conversation might go a little like this:
Prof of Cab
I have just completed the most comprehensive study ever of the role of cabbages in the alleviation of poverty. I thought you might be interested.
I am indeed interested and would like to hear more. However, I really wish you could have let us know about this earlier. The Cabbages (Alleviation of Poverty) (Scotland) Act completed its parliamentary stages last week and we are unlikely to return to the issue this parliament or for another ten years
Prof of Cab
That is a shame. Woe, I am undone.
This is the sort of issue that people often mean when they talk about the challenges of the different timescales involved in policy and research. This issue is relatively easily addressed by talking to officials at the start of a piece of research, rather than the end of it. It is genuinely useful for them to know what research is going on and equally useful for you to have a sense of any upcoming policy deadlines. In all likelihood, the fictional scholar mentioned above might have been able to work in confidence to help shape parliamentary deliberations on the issue – and without needing to expose her findings in advance of publication.
Three early-career researchers engage with policy
Coming from very different disciplinary backgrounds and with very different levels of previous policy experience, Lydia, Linda and Laura meet with officials to discuss how their research might be useful. Respectively and analytical chemist, a social anthropologist and and economist, they meet with policy professionals from the Scottish Government, Scottish Parliament and the Clyde Gateway Urban Regeneration Company to discuss their work.
Reimagining drugs policy
Pick your moment
Sometimes the decision about the right time to engage is taken out of your hands. For example, if in 2018 you had been a researcher looking at how the economic impact of pandemics can be measured, your work would have been considered very niche and of little interest to most policy institutions. Three years later, you are probably much too busy to be reading this.
There is a story about an academic who had led a life of blameless anonymity as a leading scholar of Icelandic volcanos. Then one erupted and shut down most of Europe and every government, broadcaster and airline in the world wanted to speak him. These things happen. However, usually policy engagement is rather more manufactured.
As we have seen, rather than waiting for your ‘Icelandic volcano’ moment, it can make more sense to scope out upcoming policy questions where your work has something to contribute, identifying the institution and (where possible) an individual working on that topic, and then checking for upcoming deadlines and opportunities.
This may mean looking for opportunities not related to legislation, or working with agencies beyond the Parliament and central government. There are plenty of changes other than legislation that can be informed and improved by robust evidence and rigorous analysis. Of course, like the researchers in our films, the process may well lead to working with parliamentary and government officials and contributing evidence to current legislation. Wherever the path leads, it is an interesting and rewarding journey.