Key takeaways from a panel discussion and Q&A featuring Martin Roland CBE, Emeritus Professor of Health Services Research at the Cambridge Institute of Public Health, Dr Julian Huppert, former MP for Cambridge, and Dr Leila Luheshi, formerly Head of Science at the PHG Foundation.
Timing is critical
- While academics often work to deadlines measured in years, policymakers in Whitehall, and the politicians who direct them, sometimes work to deadlines measured in minutes and hours
- It is more helpful to tell a policymaker about your preliminary findings and to provide helpful context from your area of expertise when they are working on a policy (e.g. when a consultation is running) than to provide your complete findings after a policy has been implemented
- There are several helpful theories concerning the timing of policies
- See Kingdon’s Policy Streams theory, which suggests that in order for a policy to be adopted, the policy problem must be seen to require urgent action, a solution must be available (before the focus shifts to another problem), and policymakers must be willing and able to address the problem
- See the Overton Window theory, which describes the range/ window of policies that the public will accept at a given time, and how policies do not fit into the current window can attempt to move or widen the window
Recognise why some evidence is better than no evidence
- Evidence-based policymaking is not the norm
- Governments may need to address issues at very short notice e.g. reacting to an outbreak or a natural disaster, so while there may not be a perfect answer, some evidence is better than none
- Respond to consultations – you are likely to be more knowledgeable on the subject than the policymakers
Rarely does one piece of research change policy
- Think about your research more widely than just your findings
- Often policymakers want your expertise in a given field and your overall wisdom, as opposed to the results of one piece of research
Tailor your communications
- Civil servants do not have the time, nor the access, to read academic journals – your data will not speak for itself so it needs to be communicated
- Understand what your policymakers are trying to achieve and how they will measure success in order to prepare compelling communications for them
- Do you have a key statistic or anecdote backed by evidence that can communicate your findings in an impactful way?
- Can you summarise your research and where it fits into the relevant landscape in one page?
- With which individuals, units and/or organisations can you collaborate? Do you have communications colleagues who can help you disseminate your findings? Do you have colleagues with whom you can prepare a joint response to a consultation?
- Make use of the media, including social media
Policy is a people business and requires engagement
- Make relevant contacts with policymakers and invest in maintaining them – make yourself known as a resource so that they will value your expertise and know to call on it when needed
- Consider engaging with the Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP), which runs the Junior Policy Fellowship programme
- Consider the Royal Society’s Pairing Scheme
- Are there any committees on which you can sit?
- Perhaps you would like to join a party to give advice to local politicians and your local MP. You could even stand for election
About the speakers and their experiences engaging with policy
Professor Martin Roland is Emeritus Professor of Health Services Research at the University of Cambridge. Following vocational training for general practice, he worked in London and in Cambridge before moving to the Chair of General Practice in the University of Manchester in 1992. In 1994, he established and subsequently became Director of the National Primary Care Research and Development Centre. In 2009 he moved to the inaugural RAND Professorship in Health Services Research at the University of Cambridge, a post which he held until 2016 when he was succeeded by Professor Mary Dixon-Woods.
Throughout his career, Professor Roland has sought to make a difference to the NHS, and therefore made the choice to invest time in engaging with policymakers, including by sitting on relevant committees.
Professor Roland chaired the Primary Care Workforce Commission, and subsequently worked to ensure the Commission’s 38 recommendations were heard by key stakeholders. To learn more, see his case study.
Dr Julian Huppert is the former Member of Parliament for Cambridge, and now Director of the Intellectual Forum at Jesus College, Cambridge. As an MP, he focused on a wide range of issues, from civil liberties to the environment. Prior to his election to Parliament, he was a researcher in bioinformatics and genomics, and Deputy Director of the Centre for Scientific Computing at the University of Cambridge.
Dr Leila Luheshi was Head of Science at the PHG Foundation, where she was responsible for the delivery of the scientific expertise and analysis that underpin the think tank’s work. Dr Luheshi became interested in policy because she wanted to consider the context surrounding her research and the impact her work might have. Through CSaP, she was able to spend a day a week on secondment at the department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS). She was advised to work outside her area of expertise to utilise her transferable skills while also gaining an appreciation for the work of civil servants, which spans a variety of fields. She worked on agricultural policy with BIS, the Department for International Development and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.