In the below post, Will Ingram, Gemma Delafield, and Elena Dimitriou give their take home messages from a science-policy workshop held at the University of Exeter, to which Royal Society policy staff contributed.

It should not only be well-connected professors who influence policy-making. We PhD students can also engage at the science-policy interface.

Unlike when our supervisors were doing their PhDs, there is now increasing emphasis on the real-world impact our research should have. After all, our jobs are to generate knowledge that can change the world. Engaging with policy making can be the best way to do this.

But how do we as PhD students actually do this? We held a day-long student workshop at the University of Exeter with a range of experts from policy and academic institutions which aimed to demystify this process. Here, we have summarised some of the lessons that the speakers shared with us:

  • There are different ways that knowledge generation can influence policy making. The impact of research can be instrumental, conceptual, or capacity building. Research can provide background knowledge, support effective scrutiny of policy, substantiate existing views, give balance to viewpoints and provide credibility.
  • We can design our PhDs with policy impact in mind. Choose a research question that is relevant to people’s lives. Stakeholder and policy mapping exercises will allow us to understand our areas. Limiting outputs to academic papers isn’t enough (but getting one weighty paper out is more likely to have impact than multiple lesser ones). Collaboration with policy-makers through co-design, co-development, and co-implementation with key players will help ensure impact.
  • It is important to understand policy-making processes. For instance, there is a difference between the roles of Government and Parliament, and there are some fundamental things researchers should know about how policy-making happens. We should improve our understandings of the structure of governance and find out who the key policy-makers in our specific research areas are (e.g. using LinkedIn). The Government publishes Areas of Research Interest. Remember, evidence is just one part of decision-making.
  • In the eyes of Parliament, PhD students are experts. Parliament needs experts to help them hold the Government to account. Luckily, there are some clear ways to actively engage.
    • Get in touch with POST (the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology, which provides independent analysis of relevant public policy issues). Your work might be related to their current or future needs.
    • Contact the parliamentary Libraries about your research, especially if they have a briefing paper on your research. Both the House of Commons and House of Lords have Libraries that keep MPs and Lords informed on various topics.
    • Submit evidence to Select Committee inquiries. You can find out what evidence they are after by following @ParliamentaryI3 on Twitter.
    • Don’t forget Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish routes of engagement.
  • Policy internships are an option during a PhD. UK Research & Innovation are currently advertising three-month internships across Whitehall departments and policy organisations. A Knowledge Exchange Fellowship or Innovation Placement may be worth applying to after completion.
  • There is a skill to communicating research to policy-makers. It is vital to be able to clearly explain the importance of your research.
    • Assume intelligence but lack of knowledge; do not oversimplify your research. Make it easy to understand by being concise, relevant and jargon-free. Policy-makers do not read academic papers.
    • Practice explaining the what, why and how of your research in three short bullet points. Narrative summaries are useful. Often decades of work can get condensed into one sentence.
    • Different formats of communication are equally valid, e.g. diagrams, briefing notes, blogs, tweets, infographics and slide decks.
    • Try to minimise any bias in interpretation. If providing written evidence to Parliament, be focused, constructive and don’t forget references. And don’t just show problems; illuminate solutions.
  • All of the above takes time, work and practice. It is important who you know, but they need us more than we need them. Policy makers are increasingly keen to work collaboratively. Persistence (across different timescales) is important. Have confidence that your research is essential.

Please add any more tips on how PhD students can engage with the science-policy interface in the comments below.