Making an impact – building your sphere of influence



TYPE Prevention Centre News

As a social scientist interested in psychology, health communication and population health, it’s important to me to ensure my research has real-world impact. In the past I have felt frustrated that, save for a few citations, my research would likely make little impact. Since joining the Prevention Centre, I have been delighted to be involved in research that truly seeks to influence policy and practice to improve people’s health.

I have also been involved with others in evaluating the Prevention Centre’s approach, particularly in terms of how to understand, capture and improve its impacts on research, policy and practice. So I was excited to attend the recent symposium on ‘Social Sciences: Understanding Policy Impacts,’ held by the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia in Canberra. Over the course of the day, leading social scientists, senior government officials and industry experts discussed two key questions: how do we ensure that our science influences policy, and how do we assess our impacts on policy?

Drawing on these discussions, I have pulled together some insights and tips for academics who want to understand more about making an impact on policy.

Making an impact

Much discussion focused on what we can do to increase our policy impacts. It was reassuring (but not surprising) that the Prevention Centre is already trying to implement many of the strategies discussed, such as building relationships with a range of actors, working closely with policy makers to co-produce research, and making our research accessible to policy makers.

  • Address the right problems in the right ways. If we want to influence policy, we need to be aware of and address the problems that policy makers are currently trying to solve. . We should start by considering the available policy options and what evidence policy makers need to make their decisions, then direct our efforts to providing this evidence. Evidence syntheses are valuable in providing evidence for policy solutions.
  • Build and maintain relationships. Having ongoing and authentic relationships with policy makers and the media increases the likelihood that they will contact us for information and advice (and that they will listen to this). We need to build relationships with government backbenchers while they have the time to engage with us – these are the future ministers and cabinet advisors.
  • Go beyond simple dissemination. We need to work collaboratively with policy makers throughout the research process to ensure research is relevant, timely and likely to influence policy. Simply pushing our research product at the end of the research process is not enough.
  • Understand the policy environment. Gain experience of working in the policy space, for example through secondments to government agencies, to develop an understanding of the kinds of evidence needed and constraints on policy makers.
  • Break the language divide. Communicate findings in a way that is transparent and easy to understand – without dumbing down the science. Use the language of the public/policy maker rather than the language of the scientist, and provide clear visual representations of findings. Prepare a ‘public facing’ version of research for media and/or policy makers alongside the peer-reviewed journal article version.
  • Tell policy makers what we want them to do and why. Be specific about what action you want policy makers to take, providing a clear value proposition and a strong case for action, preferably outlining the likely impact in quantitative terms. Unsurprisingly, burying away a recommendation for policy in the discussion section of our peer-reviewed article is unlikely to lead to impact.
  • Win hearts and minds. Get people to care about the issue and the evidence. Influencing public perceptions and mobilising public support for an issue is as influential as communicating directly with policy makers, or even more so. Engaging with the media is a key strategy here.
  • Be aware that influencing policy is a contact sport. While few people care if you write something in a journal article, once you start engaging with the media and trying to influence policy, those with vested interests will fight back. Although this shouldn’t deter us from media and policy engagement, it is something we should be prepared for.

Measuring impact

The meeting also discussed the issue of measuring policy impacts, focusing on the challenges of measuring social science impact and current approaches to impact assessment.

  • A continuum of influence. Impacts lie along a continuum, from ‘instrumental’, where research has a direct impact and leads to a change in what is done (usually in a short time period), to ‘conceptual’, where research has a gradual, cumulative impact over a longer time period, leading to a change in the way people think. This has implications for what we measure and how.
  • Where it goes no one knows. Diffusion of research findings is challenge. Once we’ve communicated our research, we lose control of what happens to it – it is selectively reinterpreted and it is difficult to map where it ends up or how it is used, making causal attributions about impact difficult.
  • Striking a balance. There is a tension between developing auditable, quantitative metrics of impact, versus qualitative approaches that allow in-depth reflection on the nature and extent of impacts. While metrics may be appealing, particularly to universities wanting to demonstrate impact, challenges include the difficulties of developing categories of impacts (for example, across 7000 case studies in the UK REF there were 4000 unique ‘pathways to impact’) and the danger that the things we count will influence what we do. We need to maintain a balance between quantitative and qualitative accounts of impact., The symposium also highlighted concerns of increasing burden on academics, the potential for gaming the system, and the potential overemphasis of the impact of a single study or program of work.

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