Writing policy briefs - why, when, and how?
A policy brief can be a powerful tool for research to engage with policymakers, reach out with important results, and to contribute to a democratisation of research. For policy briefs to have an impact, the message needs to be clear and the topic considered urgent. In this workshop, participants discussed how to communicate science for policy and how to make the most out of policy briefs as a means of communication.
Research can be motivated by many things such as a desire to explore the unexplored, solve an unsolved problem, or the creative joy of thinking outside the box. Another important driver, and indeed an important role for universities and higher education institutions, is to support policymakers in steering society in a positive and sustainable direction. Against this backdrop, how can policy briefs be used as a powerful and effective tool rather than something that is done to please funding agencies asking for research to be disseminated? And how can we make sure that scientific integrity is safeguarded in this process? These were some of the questions discussed during the final workshop of the SRA workshop series: Writing policy briefs - why, when, and how?
The aim of the workshop was to provide an overview of research-based policy briefs, including formatting and writing conventions, identifying and disseminating to an audience, and evaluating their impact. Workshop presenters shared their experiences of communicating science for policy covering a broad range of policy makers – from municipal to international policy level. This well attended workshop brought together participants with varying previous experience of writing policy briefs. The first part of the workshop (morning session) provided participants with different examples of how to communicate and influence policy from different contexts and fields, while the second part of the workshop (afternoon session) focussed on practical training in writing policy briefs.
The on-site workshop is one of a series of workshops, arranged by the Strategic Research Areas (SRAs) and Sustainability Forum at Lund University, aimed at creating a venue to share experiences, discuss collaboration, and foster deeper reflection on sustainability.
How to navigate between science and policy
Policymakers usually operate with shorter timeframes than researchers as they are elected for a specific timeframe and the electorate expects change to happen within this timeframe. Policymakers also have limited resources and time to go through research output and need quick and straightforward responses, whereas researchers typically work with complex problems that neither have easy solutions nor right or wrong answers. Still, policymakers need research to make decisions, and research is motivated by policy needs.
Presenters Sarah Anne Rennick (Researcher, Center for Advanced Middle Eastern Studies), and Ana Maria Vargas Falla (Director of Research, Swedish International Centre for Local Democracy) have extensive experience from working in different regional and local contexts. They shared their perspectives on how to communicate with policymakers in these contexts. Of key importance is to know the policymakers and their needs. In some cases, particularly in non-democratic countries, the policy process is not transparent, and it is not possible to know who the potential recipient for policy relevant information is. In these cases, a policy brief is likely not the best means of communication. Instead, awareness raising can be a more efficient alternative.
When it is known who the policymakers are and the policy cycle is clear, it is important to see when the window of opportunity for science to inform policy is open. There needs to be a sense of urgency. For researchers, this means that it might not be possible to wait for a specific paper to be published. In these cases, opt to use your general expertise of an issue, previous publications, and reference other researchers’ work.
The importance of timing and sense of urgency led to a discussion among participants about research ethics and when one feels comfortable providing policy advice. Working together as a team providing policy support could be one way of dealing with this issue. Publishing review papers that can be referenced as a summary of the available knowledge in one specific field could be another, while being clear about knowledge gaps and reflexive about the role of science in society.
Finding a good balance between the integrity of science and the needs of policymakers at the international level is something that presenter Markku Rummukainen (Professor, Centre for Environmental and Climate science, CEC) has a lot of experience with. As Sweden’s focal point and author to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), he has had to navigate the objective of the IPCC to be policy relevant but never policy prescriptive. In practice, this means for instance that when advising policymakers based on available science, several alternatives and their consequences are presented. It is then up to policymakers, representing their electorate, to make the ultimate choice between options. The approach that researchers do not provide just one alternative, but instead try to provide a more balanced picture, is a strategy that could help researchers in different contexts navigate between science and policy. In the case of the IPCC, an intricate structure also helps separating the roles of science and policy when reports are being written and approved. For instance, there are dedicated timeframes for governments and experts respectively to provide feedback on drafts.
Efficient policy briefs and monitoring impact
Typically, it is during the policy formulation phase of policy writing that research is most needed and thus also most likely to influence policy. If the goal is to provide policy with relevant information, it might be a good idea to contact policy makers and other stakeholders directly to ask them what kind of information they need. To have a better chance of research results to be picked up by policy makers, establishing trust by building relationships with stakeholders is important, something that both Sarah Anne Rennick and Ana Maria Vargas Falla stressed.
Similarly, Markku Rummukainen talked about how relevance was one of the most important yet difficult components in writing to policy. The IPCC process takes relevance to its extremes when it boils down thousands of pages to around thirty as it does for the “Summary for Policy Makers”. What is relevant? And to whom is it relevant? These are complex questions given the many actors and objectives involved. While the IPCC process has unique components, there are also more generic lessons that can be drawn from it, such as the importance of being sensitive to policy language and thus the more science communicators know about the policy contexts, the better - what is the language used, what are the terms used, when are key meetings being held, and when are decisions being made?
Communicating science is one thing, but how can impact be monitored? This depends on the context and scale. For instance, in the case of the IPCC, references in media or in policy documents can be monitored. At the local scale, contacting stakeholders and asking for feedback could be one way of getting an idea about policy impact. At Lund University, the research information system LUCRIS can help you track published policy briefs and policy recommendations (but you need to add them manually to the system). There is, however, a difference between visibility and impact. Impact can be particularly hard to trace long term. One first needs to define what meaningful impact would be for the specific case. It is also important to bear in mind that it might take time before any impact can be noted; and to track it you might therefore need to establish a long term relationship with policy makers and to follow an issue over an extended period of time (see also the SRA workshop on research impact).
Practical tips for writing policy briefs
An important step ahead of writing the policy brief is to conduct a stakeholder identification – map who the stakeholders are and what their needs are. Based on this, the style and means of communication that go into the policy brief can be adapted to the audience. In addition, it may also be practical to separate policy briefs from policy recommendations. Policy briefs are short and directed to policy makers, while policy recommendations can be more detailed, with the administrative and technical staff supporting policy makers as the main audience.
The list below provides some general tips for writing policy briefs and recommendations.
A strong policy brief
- Provides a general assessment and context of a problem.
- Provides options on how to solve the problem.
- Weighs different options against each other.
- Has a clear argument.
- Is adapted to the specific context.
- Grabs the reader’s attention and has enough technical details to be actionable and not just an empty idea.
- Written for an audience that does not necessarily have the technical expertise.
- Is communicated through a channel where it is likely to get picked up (usually not a webpage).
A strong policy recommendation
- Is practical and actionable: describes what needs to be done and why, as well as how and by whom.
- Is feasible – it is a good idea to use practical examples that could be implemented tomorrow with existing resources.
- Goes more into depth of the option(s) proposed in the policy brief.
- Written for an audience that has technical expertise (but who may not share your own scientific background).
The workshop is a collaboration between the Strategic Research Areas MECW and MERGE, the LU Agenda 2030 Graduate School, the Pufendorf Institute Advanced Study Group "Wildfires in the Anthropocene", and the LU Sustainability Forum.
The Middle East in the Contemporary World (MECW) (lu.se)
Agenda 2030 Graduate School (lu.se)
Wildfires in the Anthropocene | The Pufendorf Institute for Advanced Studies (lu.se)
Sustainability Forum (lu.se)