Overton Blog

Bridging the gap: Why academics should care about policy engagement

An academic or researcher’s career is often guided by key principles. You must strive to be intellectually honest, innovative and curious. Searching for and producing knowledge requires rigour and passion.

But between publishing papers, teaching obligations, conference attendance, grant applications, networking and all the rest it can sometimes be difficult to keep focus on what is perhaps the central tenet: to move the needle. To advance understanding on the issue on which you’re an expert and affect change.

In many countries, a growing focus on ‘real world research impact’ is becoming embedded into the culture, reflected in assessment criteria and funding requirements (and for all the justified criticism of the ‘metrification’ of impact, we think this is broadly a good thing….). In Australia, one of the first countries to pursue research impact assessment in a formalised way, this culture is firmly cemented through the ERA and EIA; while UK institutions now routinely consider research impact in their strategic planning due to the regular REF exercises.

In other countries, the pursuit of impact or policy engagement is less formalised in the academic structures and therefore receives less focus from researchers and administrators. Using the US as an example, in her interview with Overton NYU Professor Dorothee Baumann Pauly expressed frustration that policy engagement is not built into the hiring or promotion structure in the United States. However, in the last decade or so the call for collaboration between scientists and decision makers does seem to be on the increase in the US – for instance through the Evidence Act and the launch of evaluation.gov – even if it hasn’t yet translated into formalised structures within academia.

Regardless of whether a country’s academic institutions have a formalised impact assessment culture, there are often benefits for researchers and institutions in being proactive about disseminating their research. We think there are some fundamental reasons researchers should consider engaging with policymakers - regardless of the prevailing political winds.

Here’s five reasons we think all researchers should care about policy engagement.

  1. Public benefit: Research engagement with policy proves the relevance of academic work to real-world problems. While this is an end in itself, it’s also worth nothing that funders and industry partners often prioritise projects that have tangible benefits to society.
  2. Increase in funding opportunities: Funding agencies consider the potential impact of research when awarding grants, so having a track record of policy engagement helps increase the chances of securing funding. In fact, many agencies now explicitly state that they fund projects that promise real-world applications and societal benefits!
  3. Strengthening academic reputation: Engaging with policymakers often helps increase awareness of research, and so can build name recognition of the researcher and institution. This can lead to collaborations, invitations to serve on advisory boards, and increased visibility within both academic and policy circles. On a personal level it can help with promotions and hiring!
  4. Access to resources and data: Engaging with policymakers often provides access to resources, data and expertise that may not be available otherwise. This can enrich research projects, allowing for deeper insights and more relevant work.
  5. Fulfilling academic missions: Many academic institutions have missions that include a commitment to societal impact and public service. Engaging with policymakers supports these missions as it helps demonstrate how researchers are fulfilling their responsibilities to society.

That being said, there should always be space for ‘blue sky research’. We believe it’s hugely important for people to do work that has no obvious application in the world right now - not least because that’s how we innovate and drive society forward! But also because the pursuit of knowledge is its own reward. This list is for academics who are doing policy-relevant research, but who aren't yet convinced of the benefits of engaging with decision-makers!

Either way, our goal at Overton is to support better decision-making by facilitating the easy exchange of quality insights from the right researchers. Get in touch to find out how we're working towards this, and look out for an exciting announcement from us soon...!

What is Overton

We help universities, think tanks and publishers understand the reach and influence of their research.

The Overton platform contains is the world’s largest searchable policy database, with over 13 million documents from 31k organisations.

We track everything from white papers to think tank policy briefs to national clinical guidelines, and automatically find the references to scholarly research, academics and other outputs.