Wisdom Dube, Programme Policy Officer at the United Nations World Food Programme in Zimbabwe, gives some insights into effectively sharing research findings with a broader, non-specialist audience.
Research has important implications for society at large. It enables governments and policymakers to make evidence-based decisions and it empowers citizens to make choices that improve their quality of life. Therefore, once a successful research study has been completed, it is imperative to communicate the results with policymakers and the general public.
Communicating with policymakers
A common method of communicating research results to policymakers is via a ‘policy brief’ (also known as a ‘policy document’ or ‘policy article’). Put simply, a policy brief is a succinct document that summarizes research results. It is aimed at policymakers, who are unlikely to have enough time to read the entire study and who, in many cases, are not specialists in the field of study.
Below, I have summed up the attributes that make a good policy brief and are important to consider when preparing a policy brief. The insights I share are inspired by an unpublished study from Ghent University, Belgium, called: ‘How policy briefs can be developed to influence evidence-based nutrition policy making in sub-Saharan Africa’. This study was done in 2015-2016 by a Master’s student, Mercy A. Mtaita, who was supervised by my friend, Professor Dr Carl Lachat, from the same institution.
Attributes of a good policy brief
1. Professional, not academic
Use language that can be understood easily and quickly by a person who is not a specialist in the subject area. Remember that the policymaker will be interested in how you have reviewed the subject and in possible practical applications or solutions you have found. They are unlikely to be interested in your research processes or methodologies.
2. Descriptive, short and direct to the point
Your policy brief should be informative and it should explain why the research is important. It should provide a good basis for informed decision-making.
Your policy brief should be based on high-quality and well-designed research studies. It is vital to consider the quality of information in your research, as well as how your research evidence can be used to inform policy processes. Plus, you need to consider the relevance of your research evidence in the local context.
It is very important to be focused when preparing your policy brief. All aspects of your policy brief – from the central message to the way it is laid out – should be focused on convincing the policymakers that your research is important and that it requires action. Make sure your argument is based on facts and give fresh insights into the problem or issue you have identified. Present your argument in language that reflects the values of your target policymakers.
Communicating research to the public
Communicating research results to the wider public can help convince more people to make use of your findings. There are several ways this can be done – for instance, by writing press releases that get picked up in the media or by engaging directly with your audience on social media.
As you consider communicating with the public, it is worth taking time to understand how people make choices. I believe that an emerging field of science – Behavioural Economics – provides some good insights into how you can positively influence other people.
For example, loss aversion is a useful theory to draw on when communicating your research results to the public. This theory highlights that although people like to gain, they hate losing even more. So, when communicating your research results, it can be effective to reinforce the message that the public will lose out if they ignore your findings, making it more likely that they will take your findings seriously and change their behaviour as a result.
Social proof is about the influence that other people exert on our behaviour. When you are sharing negative results, for instance, instead of stating that 70 per cent of people are making the wrong choices, it is better to emphasize that 30 per cent of people are already making the right choices. Focusing on the negative (in this case, the 70 per cent making ‘wrong’ choices) is more likely to make the public feel comfortable (social proof) in ignoring your research findings. When you emphasize the people making ‘right’ choices (30 per cent), this is more likely to inspire the public to take positive actions as a result of your findings.
To conclude, research communication is a key part of the research process. Vital scientific knowledge should not be masked by complex language or locked away in academic journals or archives. Instead, it should be used to improve society and facilitate development.
Wisdom Dube is a Programme Policy Officer at the United Nations World Food Program in Zimbabwe. He is an experienced researcher and policy worker in the development sphere, and he has contributed to policy-directed publications in the fields of health and nutrition.
N.B: The author’s views expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations World Food Programme Zimbabwe Country Office or Ghent University Faculty of Bioscience Engineering