Overton Blog

Get active about policy engagement with Overton Engage

We sat down with Overton founder Euan Adie to discuss the launch of Overton Engage - a new platform to connect experts with decision makers, to help researchers influence policy and affect real change.

Policymakers want accurate and up-to-date evidence to help make informed decisions, but work with quick timeframes and in ways that can be easy for researchers to miss. Overton Engage collects thousands of calls for evidence, public consultations, expert panel openings and policy fellowships, then matches them to researchers with the relevant expertise.

Engage has extensive coverage in the UK and US. We're building up sources in Canada, Ireland and Australia (and a few others) and will be expanding to other countries soon!


1. Why did you decide to develop this new tool?

To make it easier for the right researchers to be in the right place at the right time! If you’re an academic interested in working with policymakers then it can be tricky to know where to start and what options are available to you.

So we wanted to create a comprehensive resource for researchers, somewhere you can browse and potentially set up alerts for future engagement opportunities that match your areas of expertise.

We already work very closely with research managers and policy officers, who are experts at this kind of thing - they’re looking for opportunities then matching them to relevant academics at their institution.

They’re shown a different, organisation wide view of the data in Engage, listing all active opportunities along with lists of researchers who might be good candidates to contact about them. We’re using some fairly sophisticated machine learning behind the scenes to power this, which we’re quite proud of.


2. What are the barriers to getting started with policy engagement? 

There are lots - though they aren’t all bad. It’s important not to lose sight of the overarching goal of all of this stuff which is for good policy to come out of good evidence and advice, there does need to be a little gatekeeping.

Equally though there’s lots of room for improvement, especially around access. Policymakers don’t always know how to access expertise and researchers don’t know how to connect with decision makers. Generally this stuff is relationship based, you get there through networking, building trust and credibility and lots of communication.

Which is great, but at the same time we want to avoid policymakers developing a relationship with an expert or an institution who they then tend to refer to for everything, even when there are others with more relevant expertise.

It’s also hard work. Some universities will have policy offices or external engagement specialists to help facilitate these kinds of relationships on behalf of researchers, but even then they have to rely on existing contacts with policymakers, to be constantly checking different websites or signing up to mailing lists to keep on top of opportunities.

Timing’s also critical. The urgency of policymaking doesn't quite sync up with the slower pace of research. Research takes time - often years - so it can be quite jarring to have to move quite so quickly. In some cases decision makers want an answer on something within a few weeks, so researchers have to be ready to respond as soon as the call goes out. 

Finally, there’s research translation: it can often seem like policymakers and researchers are speaking slightly different languages. It’s not just about producing the right research but about ensuring that it’s actually usable in a policy context.

We know that this is a big issue - and there’s increasing focus on training researchers to communicate their findings in a more accessible way. But it goes beyond that. Often the terms that policymakers use for certain topics are different to the ones researchers would use - which makes it hard to search or filter engagement opportunities based on keywords, as they won’t necessarily be the same.


3. How does Overton Engage address this?

Overton Engage has three components. It’s a database of policy engagement opportunities. We gather information from government, IGOs and civil society organisations at a local, national and international level. You can browse all, or search and filter via keywords, location or type of request. Each listing contains information on the request, including contact details and deadline. Users can browse these opportunities and set up alerts so they don’t miss anything new.

This part of the system is free and open to anybody to use at https://engage.overton.io, you don’t need a subscription. We hope that by making these opportunities more visible we’re doing our bit to help democratise the process of policy engagement, to help represent a more diverse range of voices and to broaden policymakers’ understanding of a given issue.

The second component is the matching element. OE helps identify which researchers in a given institution might be suited to policy engagement opportunities.The matched profile includes key information on the researcher, giving highly specific information on scholarly interests and even previous policy experience. Our goal is to help our users be more agile and responsive so that they can act on opportunities quickly. We’re trying to do away with as much manual searching as possible - we know how frustrating it is to find a good opportunity, then spend ages searching through faculty lists for an appropriate expert, only for the deadline to elapse. Our goal is to help you do more, faster.

The final component is training. A subscription to OE includes a suite of training materials to help researchers to develop skills and knowledge in policy engagement. The training content helps them to upskill and learn how to translate their expertise into a more digestible, ‘policy friendly’ format. Not only does this help solve the communication problem but also the timing problem - these resources will help researchers get ready to respond, saving time when an appropriate opportunity comes up.

The matching and training elements are only available with a subscription, though we’ve kept the cost as low as we can.


4. How does the matching tool work?

We’re using machine learning for this, automatically matching scholarly articles from OpenAlex to each of the engagement opportunities in the database and then figuring out from that which researchers might be best suited to them.

Matched researcher profiles contain key facts like career stage and scholarly interests, helping users to pinpoint the most relevant expert for each opportunity. 

The tricky thing is that the vocabulary used in scholarship can be different to that used in policy, even when talking about the same issues, so we had to train a large language model to “translate” between the two worlds. 

Luckily that kind of thing is our speciality: the Overton Index connects millions of policy documents with the academic research they cite and so we had a lot of past experience and data to draw on.


5. The platform is created to be used differently by institutions with different levels of experience. Can you explain more about this, and why you set it up this way?

Some institutions are highly experienced in external engagement, with contacts in government and embedded policy teams, while others aren’t or are just getting started. 

We want to be able to support them both, and for policymakers to hear from the right expert, wherever they’re employed. So you can configure the app in a few different ways.

Policy teams are highly skilled and we think where they do exist that they’re best placed to support their staff through the engagement process. Overton Engage is designed to take some of the grunt work away and to complement existing tools and workflows.

In this scenario an administrator can set up Engage so that researchers are routed through the policy office: academics can still browse and search opportunities but we show logos and contact details for the policy office on opportunity pages and the call to action as an academic is to chat to somebody on the team, to figure out what support is available and what the next steps are.

The second scenario for when there’s less institutional capacity is focused more on helping researchers to self-start: academics can browse and search opportunities, view training and support materials that we’ve developed, and then apply directly to the policymaker themselves.


6. Are there any next steps or planned development?

The next phase will hopefully involve expanding the coverage to other areas. At the moment we’ve spent most of our time collecting opportunities in the UK and the US (and we’re gradually building up coverage in Australia, Ireland and other parts of the EU) as we’re more familiar with the agencies and decision makers who are requesting support there. But we of course hope to make the tool a global resource.

We’re adding the ability for institutions to add their own opportunities, and to match opportunities against arbitrary text like project descriptions and biographical blurbs. That’ll be coming later in the year.

We’ve also run some interesting experiments with funders and publishers, and I’m keen to explore that side of things more too.


7. Finally, why should researchers engage with policy?

Maybe the first thing to say is that if you don’t want to, you shouldn’t have to. Academics have lots of competing pressures at the moment and policy engagement is potentially a lot of work for no guaranteed reward: these are systemic issues. There’s also the chance that the research you’re working on is (while important) not necessarily policy relevant, in which case opportunities may be thin on the ground.

But to create effective policy it must be based on good evidence and if you think you’re got capacity to help with this then you should. The challenges facing us are vast and global, and there is a pressing need for the scientific community to work with policy makers to find solutions. If you got into research to help make the world a better place then here’s a way to do it.

Funders, government and the general public increasingly put a premium on research having some sort of practical application or to be designed to address a problem. Which is not always a good thing of course - that’s another conversation - but the upside is that having a past record of policy impact can help with future grant applications, reporting, job interviews and promotion and tenure.

Ultimately, though, when you actively take steps to influence policy you’re removing the barriers between your research and the people it might affect. I think that’s a compelling motivation.


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What is Overton

Overton connects research with public policy. Our platform helps find, evidence and grow the real-world impact of your work.

Our flagship product Overton Index is the world’s largest policy and grey literature database – we track over 13 million documents and automatically find links to the evidence they reference.

Our new tool Overton Engage contains policy engagement opportunities from all over the world, brought together in a single searchable interface - it offers a direct way to access policymakers and affect real world change.

Get a global view of the policy landscape with the tools to study it in depth.