Postdoctoral Research Associate
Department of Educational Leadership and Policy
University of Utah
As academics, we train to become experts in our field by reading, writing, and engaging with a topic for years. Nevertheless, many lament the limited inclusion of empirical research in the policy process and question why researchers themselves are not more involved in policymaking. Academics have even described empirical research’s use in policy as “trees without fruit” (Keller, 1985) or “shipyards in the desert” (Weiner, 1986), suggesting its minimal impact. A contributing factor to the division between researchers and policymakers has been framed as differences between “two communities,” where each side maintains distinct language, norms, and goals that ultimately impede effective cross-communication. Questions remain—are policymakers intentionally avoiding empirical research? And, more importantly, what can researchers do to make their work more policy relevant and policy applicable? After spending last year as an AERA/American Association for the Advancement of Science Congressional fellow, I would say the answers to these questions are “no” and “lots.”
Let us first consider the context and timeline of the policy process. Politics and individual agendas are ever-present throughout policy development and implementation. Regardless of political party affiliation, geography, and other broad factors, a politician’s primary objective is to pass bills that align with their goals and the needs of their constituency. The use of research to inform these decisions becomes secondary and will only be considered when it aligns with their broader goal and agenda.
Moreover, even if research was prioritized, there are limitations for policymakers to access and consider the extensive history of empirical work on a given topic. First, the timeline for decision-making is short and the staff member in charge of informing the elected official is likely overseeing several topics (each with pressing deadlines). For example, in many congressional offices, the staffer in charge of education policy is also responsible for health, labor, pensions, and possibly more depending on how their office is staffed and the committees their boss is involved. The utility of academic research is further stymied by academic jargon, the lengthy publication process, and the overall specificity of most academic studies, which limit their applicability to broader policy conversations. Of course, this assumes staff members can even read these journal articles through paywalls and other barriers to access.
Staff members must turn to other parties that can translate and repackage empirical research into a more digestible form. Often these information sources are intermediary organizations—think tanks, advocacy groups, and research consortia—that are able to devote extensive time to translate academic research into a more policy applicable form. The utility and association with specific organizations for staff members are again based on the broader agenda and politics of their boss, but should not be dismissed by academics as a viable avenue to share their work. In fact, recent research has begun to untangle and highlight the critical role of these groups in influencing policy and dissemination of information (see Gándara, Rippner, & Ness, 2017; Orphan, Laderman, & Gildersleeve, 2018).
To that end, turning to the second question—what academics can do to connect their work better to the policy world—it really starts with these intermediary organizations. Many groups solicit expertise from researchers to conduct projects and to distill their empirical work, or broader literature reviews, into one-page policy briefs. Academics should reach out to organizations that align with their own goals and agenda to see if opportunities exist to author blog posts, reports, or policy briefs (see Hillman & Weichman, 2016; Kelchen, 2017; Long, 2018).
While organizations prominent in policy discussions might turn to established academics more often for such opportunities, newer researchers can still find platforms to establish themselves as policy-facing researchers (and potential resources for bigger-named intermediary organizations in the future). For example, news sources like Diverse Issues, Inside Higher Ed, and The Conversationprovide researchers an outlet to write in a less academic setting and for a less academic audience (see Garcia, 2018; Marsicano, 2017).
Considering policymakers are concerned with their constituency and district/state, an additional resource is within an academic’s home institution in the government relations office. These individuals will have connections to policymakers and have an understanding of their priorities and concerns. By keeping the government relations office apprised of major projects and empirical work, academics may be better attuned to when they can be more effective in influencing policy discussions. Additionally, if there is major legislation on the docket—for example, the Higher Education Act—it may be worthwhile to make your government relations office aware of your willingness to serve as a contact for policymakers and see if any connections can be accomplished in that manner.
Academics also need to consider how they are promoting themselves and their work. Academics cannot rely on academic journals as the primary mechanism for promoting their work. Keep in mind, the staff members that are shaping policy are very busy and are most often hearing about major topics and information sources via Twitter and other social media sites. Consequently, maintaining an online presence is important and being able to summarize research concisely (think one or two tweets) is critical.
Academics need to make their work more accessible if they want to be more policy relevant. This includes considering an audience that might not be fellow academics, necessitating less jargon and a focus on findings and implications. One possible area to consider this is when writing manuscript abstracts. Providing adequate detail on the major findings and implications of a study in an abstract can provide readers an understanding of the contributions of a study without requiring access to the journal or full manuscript.
Policymakers and intermediary organizations translating empirical research are also searching for actionable policy – viable mechanisms to move current policy forward. Therefore, academics should reconsider what constitutes “policy recommendations” in journal manuscripts. If the hope is for research findings to influence policy decisions, this section should not be a place to grandstand and discuss policy as though it is entirely theoretical (see Kelchen & Li, 2017).This is not to say that researchers should not also discuss the ideal policy outcome but the focus must be about actionable steps to reach that end.
Notably, academics face additional obstacles when trying to bridge the two community divide. A key factor to consider is that tenure and promotion committees often do not favor these policy-oriented activities over the traditional responsibilities of research, teaching, and service. Academics need to consider this when deciding how best to devote their time but should also recognize that it is a double-edged sword – if you do not interact with the policy sector, the policy sector will likely not reach out to you. Policymakers already have their “experts” on a given topic, so the onus is ultimately on academics to prove their value as one of these sources and getting their work in the correct hands to influence policy.
Gándara, D., Rippner, J.A., & Ness, E.C. (2017). Exploring the ‘how’ in policy diffusion: National intermediary organizations’ roles in facilitating the spread of performance-based funding policies in the states. The Journal of Higher Education, 88(5), 701-725.
Garcia, N.M. (2018, September 10). An open letter from the “hot tamale” aka your Latina professor. Diverse Issues. Online at: https://diverseeducation.com/article/125140.
Hillman, N., & Weichman, T. (2016). Education deserts: The continued significance of “place” in the twenty-first century. American Council on Education: Center for Policy Research and Strategy. Online at: https://www.acenet.edu/news-room/Documents/Education-Deserts-The-Continued-Significance-of-Place-in-the-Twenty-First-Century.pdf.
Kelchen, R. (2017, September). Higher education accreditation and the federal government. Urban Institute. Online at: https://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/publication/93306/higher-education-accreditation-and-the-federal-government.pdf.
Kelchen, R., & Li, A.Y. (2017). Institutional accountability: A comparison of the predictors of student loan repayment and default rates. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 671(1), 202-223.
Keller, G. (1985). Trees without fruit: The problem with research about higher education. Change, 17(1), 7-10.
Long, B.T. (2018, May 25). The college completion landscape: Trends, challenges, and why it matters. American Enterprise Institute/Third Way. Online at: https://www.thirdway.org/report/the-college-completion-landscape-trends-challenges-and-why-it-matters.
Marsicano, C.R. (2017, July 13). Republican don’t hate higher education. InsideHigherEd. Online at:https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2017/07/13/republicans-view-individual-colleges-differently-they-do-higher-ed-general-essay.
Orphan, C.M., Laderman, S., & Gildersleeve, R.E. (2018). The Role of Intermediary Public Policy Organizations in Shaping the Policy Agenda for Higher Education: A Research Brief.2018 Public Policy Forum, Higher Education in the Era of the States: Elevating Equity and Advancing Public Policy.” Online at: .
Weiner, S.S. (1986). Shipyards in the desert. The Review of Higher Education, 10(2), 159-164.