Ensuring that research makes a difference: Some practical advice

Published on
March 28, 2012

As previously mentioned, an interesting research project has been exploring the nexus between research and policy making.

In the article below, Abby Haynes, research officer at the Sax Institute, reports on some of the implications of the findings for researchers and policy makers.

And at the bottom of the post is a link to a resource that may be useful for those with an interest in knowledge translation or communications more broadly.


For research to make a difference

Abby Haynes writes:

When the worlds of policy and research collide, great things can happen in public health. The trouble is, such productive collisions don't happen nearly enough.

As many as 50% of academic papers are never read by anyone other than their authors, referees and journal editors.

The vast majority of research publications, even those in applied fields such as public health, have no influence on health policies or health services practice.

So if we want to achieve health policy in Australia that is informed by the best available research – something I'm pretty sure most people would agree is worth striving for – then how do we bridge this gulf?

An important step is better understanding the mechanics of what happens when researchers do produce and present research that resonates in policy circles. What are these researchers doing differently?

Little is known about how policy makers identify and assess researchers. Led by Professor Simon Chapman from the University of Sydney's School of Public Health, our team of researchers from the University, the Sax Institute, Menzies Centre for Health Policy, and the University of Queensland, has tried to expand this knowledge.

We interviewed 26 Australian public servants, ministers and ministerial staffers (PloS ONE online) and found that three-quarters of politicians and political staffers relied on media profile and high-profile academic credentials as a means of identifying trustworthy researchers.

"I have absolutely no idea how I would go about identifying someone if there wasn't an obvious expert prominent in the media," one said.

In contrast, 80 percent of public servants said they assessed researchers on their track record in policy-relevant research and relied on their professional networks to identify them.

"The number one strategy would be using our policy colleagues to see if they have any recommendations," said one.

There are risks in both of these approaches.

On the one hand, public servants relying on tried and tested people might narrow the field, limiting the breadth of advice necessary for broadly-informed policy.

On the other, politicians relying on the "stellar reputations" associated with a high media profile might discount researchers with something positive to contribute. Not everyone feels comfortable in front of the camera or the radio mike.

Also, those who do feel comfortable in the media world can be wild cards for governments. Researchers who are "likely to be trouble" or are "difficult to control" might find themselves outside the policy tent. This tension between academic independence and policy commitment poses potential ethical problems for researchers.

Despite their different routes to finding researchers, politicians and public servants were similar in the attributes they valued. Overall, being trustworthy was considered essential for any researcher wanting to work in the policy sphere.

This encompassed:

  • Independence –the ability to give frank and fearless advice
  • Pragmatism – taking a flexible, non-dogmatic and problem solving approach
  • Being collaborative, accessible and offering constructive criticism
  • Being 'authentic' and non-ideological ("You have to have people who you can trust absolutely who will educate you, not give you spin," one politician said)
  • Being able to communicate clearly in briefings and in the media, ("Being able to understand what they are saying is a big, big problem" said one politician) though this was less important to public servants
  • Being able to cut across the issues and look at the big picture
  • Understanding the incremental nature of the policy process and being realistic about its "ugly compromises".

Both groups can learn something from this research (funded by the NHMRC).

The way policy makers identify researchers would be better if it were more systematic and considered. There is also an educational role for them in helping researchers engage with and understand the policy process.

A take-home message for researchers is that if they want to be influential, success is multi-faceted. It's not just about personal relationships, particularly given the labyrinthine nature of the bureaucratic machine in which a multitude of individuals and interests jostle to influence policy.

Influential researchers are well-connected and respected across multiple policy domains.


  • Target health priorities in their research and address policy-relevant questions
  • Serve on committees, advisory groups and taskforces
  • Provide departmental and ministerial briefings
  • Promote research via conferences, workshops, websites and newsletters
  • Advocate via direct lobbying and media engagement
  • Share information and offer support to colleagues in academia, NGOs, the media and policy circles.

Many researchers look like naval gazers to policymakers.

"I didn't even think of seeking out a researcher [for a ministerial steering group on a contentious issue with significant associated research]. I guess that's a good example of, in practice, us not even thinking of academics as relevant," one staffer said.

They want timely, accessible and 'fit-for-purpose' research that doesn't necessarily focus on methodological elegance but tackles messy 'real-life' problems.

This may be a controversial view for more traditionally minded researchers, who might consider policy-focused activities as sullying the disinterest they believe is fundamental to the conduct of 'proper' science. But debate over what activities researchers should and shouldn't engage in to improve public health is a challenge for academia to resolve.

In the meantime, this research may provide some food for thought for those who do wish to engage more in the way policy is developed in Australia.

Abby Haynes works at the Sax Institute as a research officer on CIPHER – the Centre for Informing Policy in Health with Evidence for Research. CIPHER has been funded by the NHMRC to test the best ways to help policy agencies find and use research.


Further reading: a practical guide to knowledge translation

Meanwhile, the Twitterverse today sent forth news of a useful resource for those with an interest in related matters – The Knowledge Translation Toolkit.

Produced by Canada's International Development Research Centre and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), it is aimed at researchers in systems and policy research who have an interest in addressing health inequities facing people in low and middle-income countries. However, I'm sure a wide audience would also find it useful.

"The tools in this book will help researchers ensure that their good science reaches more people, is more clearly understood, and is more likely to lead to positive action. In sum, that their work becomes more useful, and therefore more valuable," says the book.

Amongst other things, it includes practical advice on writing articles, speeches, newsletters, emails, policy briefs, doing broadcast and multimedia productions, and running conference sessions.

It also has suggestions for creating websites, blogs, and engaging with social media, noting that "colloquial evidence suggests that-in the developed world-people of all ages now spend more time surfing the net than watching television".

It also emphasies the importance of storytelling – whether using the written word or other means of communication (including dance and other creative forms).

It cites a recommendation that good stories should have the following attributes:

  • Endurance: While stories are likely to change over time, the lessons they convey should stay the same.
  • Salience: Good stories should appeal to their audience, be witty, pithy, and touch an emotional chord. The story must be short enough for people to remember it.
  • Coherence: Stories should explain something and make sense. They must also be believable-avoid exaggeration.
  • Character: Stories tend to hinge around the values and actions of characters the audience can easily identify with.

As well, it says that stories "should be simple and concise but with sufficient background information; be plausible, lively, and exciting; be told with conviction and, always, end on a positive".

On that note, here is a quote from the report which illustrates the merits of metaphor and storytelling to make dry subjects (no pun intended) more engaging:

Knowledge is like fine wine. The researcher brews it, the scientific paper bottles it, the peer review tastes it, the journal sticks a label on it, and archive systems store it carefully in a cellar. Splendid! Just one small problem: wine is only useful when somebody drinks it.

Wine in a bottle does not quench thirst. Knowledge Translation (KT) opens the bottle, pours the wine into a glass, and serves it.

The report also includes mentions of case studies, including:

Kenya-From Tobacco to Bamboo

A research project on "alternative livelihoods" for former tobacco growers is so relevant to policy that instead of researchers promoting their idea to government, the government is running TV documentaries to promote the research to the public!

Brazil-Mercury Research

Research on the source of mercury contamination in the Amazon had two unexpected and major outcomes. It successfully traced a source of mercury contamination; but then used its findings and KT processes, in the wider context, to do much more-it helped prevent illness, save lives, improve diets, address environmental damage, and tapped into the influential role of women in these communities to build social networks that are bringing profound long-term benefits to the way villagers communicate and partner with the localauthorities.

South Africa-Homes Versus Housing

Slum dwellers who moved to new housing estates were neither happier nor healthier. Research identified the disconnect between city planners, managers, and communities; KT brought them together, and not only did the dialogue bring an investment shift toward improving rather than replacing low-quality homes, but also spawned networks and institutional collaborations that are now addressing a wide range of other urban issues.