Academics Can and Should Influence Important Policy Debates

Michelle Dimino gives advice for how scholars can break down silos between the academic and legislative spheres.

May 19, 2020

As the United States grapples with the ramifications of the coronavirus health crisis, policy makers and citizens alike are seeking the expertise of doctors, economists and scholar practitioners from across fields who can present the facts and show a way forward. This has created a window, and likely a long-term one at that, for academic research to influence policy in meaningful ways.​

Working at a think tank, I’ve seen firsthand the silos between the academic and legislative spheres that often prevent important scholarly research from making its way into the hands of staffers on Capitol Hill, where decision makers can turn that research into action.

Yet despite the challenges, academics and policy makers need each other.

Good policy is evidence-based and anticipates costs, benefits and consequences. Strong research broadens the knowledge base on a topic and offers insights into the implications of policy decisions. And right now, it’s not an overstatement to say that the country -- and the world -- desperately need both.

My team at Third Way, a think tank in Washington, D.C., spends a lot of time working to break down these silos. Our efforts take several forms: we invite scholars to speak at our events, join academic organizations and send representatives to their conferences. Most important, we run a paper series where we collaborate with higher education scholars to translate their findings into a format and style accessible to policy audiences. That’s because we know that, realistically, congressional staffers rarely have time to read reports longer than a dozen pages, and they aren’t looking for the same things as Reviewer No. 2.

Building on lessons learned from this work, here are our top tips for academics looking to get their research out from behind a paywall and onto the desks of policy makers.

Understand the policy context. If you’re looking to influence the policy conversation in your field, you need to understand where that conversation is and whose voices are leading it. While you are undoubtedly familiar with the major topics in your research area, they may not necessarily track with what’s percolating in the policy arena.

As a litmus test, if legislation on a given issue has been passed in a recent Congress, it’s probably not going to be on the table again for several years or until it’s up for reauthorization, so it won’t hold lawmakers’ attention now. On the other hand, at a moment like this, when a major global crisis is poised to reshape many aspects of society, it’s quite easy to determine where lawmakers’ attention lies. That makes it all the more important to be attentive to what policy questions are being asked and where -- or whether -- your research can inform the current debate.

To get a sense of which specific issues are ripe for new or improved policies, monitor national political news and legislative movement closely. Keep track of what’s being said by journalists covering relevant beats and members of Congress spearheading legislation, regulatory action or stimulus proposals that would impact your field.

And if you’re not active on Twitter, you probably should be. For many fields, it serves as a virtual gathering place for updates on policy proposals and new research. Use your Twitter bio to clearly identify your interests and link to your work, and make sure you follow not just other academics but also reporters, policy experts and members of Congress who serve on key committees.

Build relationships with think tanks. Because of their close working relationships with congressional offices, think tanks can be a connecting thread for academics looking to weigh in on policy debates. Many think tanks, particularly those based in Washington, D.C., have dual focuses on policy analysis and advocacy. That means they have regular contact with legislative offices and an ear to the ground on what issues and approaches have political traction at a given moment. Think tanks often also host events featuring expert speakers or publish viewpoints from external voices, so building relationships with them can help position you as someone to be sought after for those event stages and bylines.

Be intentional in your outreach. Research the think tanks and individual analysts doing work in your policy area and be sure to follow them on Twitter and read their recent reports. Reading something you like or have questions about presents a great opportunity to send an introductory note and set up a meeting or call. When you connect, be ready to give a brief overview of your research, speak to its relevance and ask about opportunities for collaboration.

While every organization operates differently, it’s likely that your partnership with a think tank could take a few forms, such as serving as an external adviser as they develop or evaluate legislative proposals, authoring or co-authoring research briefs, or participating in events as an expert speaker. They can also pitch you as a source to journalists or help you write and place an op-ed on a newsy topic -- a worthwhile process, since a quotation in a national media outlet is more likely to catch the eye of policy staffers than a citation in a peer-reviewed journal.

Practice writing for a nonexpert audience. Congressional staffers may not always have Ph.D.s, but they are smart, well informed and intellectually curious. You can assume they will be interested in reading your work -- just not if it looks like a journal article, and certainly not if it’s behind a paywall. In legislative offices, staffers often juggle multiple issue areas, ideas circulate in memos and bullet-point summaries, and time is short -- especially during a crisis.

To meet your audience where they are, your writing needs to be clear, concise and accessible. That means no academic jargon. Again: no jargon! Your goal is to inform and engage nonexpert readers, so ask yourself what the reader needs to know and tell it to them in plain language.

As general stylistic rules, bullets and short sentences, easy-to-skim paragraphs, and simple graphics are your friends; lengthy methodology and reference sections are not.

Above all, your writing needs to be actionable. Lead with the what and the why of your research: What are your findings and why are they relevant for policy design?

Remember, you want Hill staffers to be able to quickly identify top lines for their bosses, so make it clear what you want them to take away. What factors should be considered in crafting legislation? What additional data are needed to make an informed decision about existing proposals?

Learning how to write for a nonacademic audience can be a challenge -- but it’s well worth the effort. Look at the recent publications on your CV and try developing a one-page brief on your findings or breaking down major ideas in a Twitter thread. Start a blog where you can share insights on trends and policy developments and hone your voice. Compile a list of the high-level talking points that you would cite when speaking with policy staffers or the press. And make a habit of returning to these exercises for each new research project you undertake.

Chances are, you got into academe and have spent countless hours conducting research because you want your work to make a difference. In this pivotal moment, experts across academic fields can and should draw upon their knowledge to contribute to the policy-making process by elevating their voices and helping connect the dots between the ivory tower of their institutions and the ivory dome of Capitol Hill.


Michelle Dimino is an education policy adviser at Third Way, a Washington, D.C.-based public policy think tank.


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