Out of touch, impractical and irrelevant

8 07 2009

argumentThe opening quote to this interesting little article says it all:

“We have all heard policy-makers in environment organisations accuse researchers as out of touch, impractical and irrelevant. We have all seen environment management agencies criticised by researchers in the media, in this journal, at conferences or in the tea room for ignoring, under-utilising or misrepresenting research findings when formulating or implementing policy.”

From the ‘researcher’ side, I can attest that I have on more than one occasion cursed the inability of policy makers (from high-level politicians down to municipal councillors) to implement sound, evidence-based advice on how to prevent (or at least minimise) environmental disasters (for a local example, see this post). I’m sure many policy makers think that (at least some) researchers are pie-in-the-sky, political naïfs that consistently fail to make their research relevant. I know that both extremes are unfortunate realities.

So when I saw Gibbons and colleagues’ paper Some practical suggestions for improving engagement between researchers and policy-makers in natural resource management, I was quite impressed with their excellent suggestions for bridging the gap.

It’s a short paper, but it recommends the following basic steps for improvement:

  1. Understand what motivates people on each side of the policy fence. For researchers, we are locked into a system that rewards success based on a some typically non-economic metrics, such as the quality and quantity of peer-reviewed articles we write, our academic reputation amongst our peers, the amount of external funding we can attract (generally linked to the publication criterion) and the number of students we supervise to research independence. Policy makers working within a more top-down environment are compelled to advance policies that reflect their government’s philosophy (which is dictated by their constituents), and often the deadlines are fierce.

  2. Build relationships. This goes without saying, but often doesn’t happen. Lack of trust can usually only be broken down if you respect and know your counterpart. Gibbons and company suggest that relationships can be built better through the regular dissemination of information back and forth, effective communication (clarity and brevity), and maintaining relationships after information exchange (keep in touch).

  3. Organise regular forums. These meetings are essential to build new and productive relationships. Ways to increase contact include: maintaining ‘who’s who’ lists, encouraging secondments (people exchanges), and organising annual science-policy colloquia.

  4. Explore alternate communication media. Face-to-face meetings are often difficult, so Gibbons et al. recommend that researchers attempt to disseminate their work regularly in other media, such as newsletters, broad-scope journals, journalistic magazines and blogs (this last suggestion is my own!). Governments can also make calls for research proposals in particular, policy-relevant areas, thus forcing alignment prior to research even getting off the ground.

Thanks for the advice.

CJA Bradshaw

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