^image: 2018 Population Reference Bureau (PRB) Policy Communication Workshop Trainees at CRD in Washington DC
Last week, I was offered the opportunity to attend a workshop that prepares graduate students to influence policy and practice through effective communication. The workshop was held by the Population Reference Bureau (PRB), an influential nonprofit organization that specializes in demographic research domestically and internationally, in addition to teaching researchers and journalists more effective communication strategies. This week, I thought I would share a little bit about what I learned at the workshop because I hope to encourage others to think about the potential changes that they can enact through their research.
Policy changes are often incremental
As researchers, we are trained to be careful about what we say about our research, especially when making recommendations related to policies. At most, at least within my discipline, we simply suggest areas for future research. Because of this, the idea of changing policies can seem daunting and even uncomfortable, particularly if what you envision is large sweeping changes at the federal or state level. If this idea doesn’t intimidate you, then you can probably stop reading this blog post 😉 . For those of us who approach consequential actions like this with more hesitation, you should instead, think of these large policy changes as an overall goal, but know that small steps along the way are equally as important in achieving these goals. The smaller steps are also where we will likely have the greatest impact as junior researchers.
To make my point more clear, here’s an example–bear with me here because I want to avoid a political topic. Let’s say that your research has indicated that there is a large proportion of households that do not have access to cat memes. What an injustice right?! I mean, look!
Awwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww! I could do this all day.
Okay, but seriously. Simply researching cat meme inequality and saying that it is a problem does not guarantee that your research will get acknowledged by decision makers. Your senator, for example, would likely laugh at you if you walked up to them and said “We need to pass a bill about cat meme inequality!” And even if they took you seriously, they would probably ask about the evidence, what should be done to fix it, and how much it would cost. You need to be able to answer these questions or have a good response before approaching your senator. If you can do this, awesome! Call your senator right now. If not, you’ll need to do more groundwork to convince others to join your cause.
Instead, it may be more within your reach to (1) begin organizing meetings with a coalition of researchers who also believe that unequal access to cat memes is a societal problem. Once you have your group members, (2) the next step may be to identify other well-known organizations with fellow cat meme lovers who would like to begin holding conferences about the benefits of equal access to cat memes. Together, (3) you can draw attention to the issue and get more people to reach out to influential decision-makers to address cat meme inequality. This increased attention may even convince others to fund your project, which is often a necessary step in the process of enacting change. As a result, you may get a question about cat meme access added to a Census survey such as the American Community Survey. Congratulations! This is a policy change!
Also, thinking back to the bigger picture. Getting a question about cat meme access is important because data on cat meme access will allow you to provide credible benchmarks to policymakers, who can then set targets to reduce the prevalence of cat meme deserts by 30% over the next 5 years–which may be the overall goal.
Silliness of my example topic aside, this was loosely based on a case study in Bangladesh. Just substitute cat meme inequality with infant mortality. The example is also meant to demonstrate that these smaller changes are completely within reach. We don’t have to aim for federal level changes in laws that require companies to expand access to cat memes. You just need to consider doing the following:
- Set a goal. Preferable one that you can measure. This way, you and others involved can determine if the goal has been met.
- Identify who your goal will benefit and who can enact the changes. You also want to keep in mind those who will oppose you. Make sure you have strategies in place to either convince them to join your cause or at least minimize any roadblocks.
- Figure out who can help you achieve your goal. People or organizations that can either help find/test solutions, fund the project, and/or draw attention to the issue.
- Identify any windows of opportunity. Is there a summit or research conference that is covering your issue? Does your goal overlap with any nationally recognized goals–for example, the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. Are your policymakers voting on a bill that involves your goal(s)?
As I was told during the workshop, the point is that you should think about changing policies, but necessarily POLICIES. You can eventually enact POLICY changes if you prepare and strategically take advantage of opportunities that may arise, especially if you are working within a network that shares a similar vision and is equally passionate about making these changes.
Okay. Think small. Now what?
As researchers, we usually play an important role in creating credible evidence for a problem or solution. This helps to draw attention to the issue or at least helps to lay a groundwork of research that others can use to influence key decision makers. Knowing this, here are two things that we can consider to more effectively participate in this process:
Access. People need to have access to our research in order to do something about it. You can make your research more visible in many ways, including presentations, blogs, op-eds, social media, and newspaper or magazine articles. Publishing in peer-reviewed journals is great for building your credibility and the credibility of the issue, but most articles are behind a paywall. Even if they are freely accessible, academic writing is not well understood by a general audience. You should consider sharing your research through different mediums.
Clarity. Your audience also needs to understand your research when they have access to it. This means avoid technical jargon, such as statistical language, abstract concepts such as “macro- and micro-level,” and any terms that are mostly used within your discipline. Of course, the degree that you edit your language will depend on your audience. Always research your audience and tailor your message accordingly. Regardless, the simpler the language, the more accessible it is. Also, the easier your research is to understand, the more likely you are to keep your audience’s attention. I’ll admit, this is surprisingly difficult when put into practice. I plan to write another blog post about tips for writing more effectively for a broader audience next week.
There is a lot that goes into policy communication. In this post, I barely touched on the topic. My primary goal was to try and convince you that your research has the potential to make an impact, especially if you strategically think about where your expertise fits within the process of enacting change.
Your research is important! So, why not consider making it more accessible to a broader audience? Who knows. Maybe it will end up in the hands of someone who can actually do something about the topic that you are so passionate about.