Reflections from a policy engagement event – a blog by Maris Vainre

How does evidence-informed policy come about? The Institute of Public Health at University of Cambridge invited researchers into the world of policy making. Three experts shared their views at this event:

  • Dr Christine McGuire, Lead on Patient Experience Intelligence – Acute Care and Quality Division, Department of Health
  • Dr Alison Tedstone, National Director with responsibility for diet, nutrition and obesity in the Health and Wellbeing Directorate of Public Health England
  • Professor John Watson, Deputy Chief Medical Officer

As someone trying to navigate the landscape of research impact and policy-making, I found the conversations on the day very insightful. In fact, conversations, emphasised all presenters, are key.

This exchange is important as it allows information to flow in both directions. It ensures that the knowledge that Academia generates, is considered in policy-making. It also means that researchers are aware of any ongoing or upcoming issues in the society. That is, what the civil servants are trying to fix. This could be the other way around, too – a researcher could predict a new upcoming issue based on their research and a civil servant may benefit from that.

As you can imagine, this dialogue helps in everyone seeing the bigger picture. Researchers often focus on one area, digging further and further to discover nuances to help us understand the matter better. This practice is great for knowing a field inside and out. Policy, however needs to consider the impact of a decision in a wider context. Yes, it might be good to get people cycling to work because of the health benefits. However, what if it causes more accidents on the streets that may not yet be safe enough for cyclists? (In fact, there’s a study at CEDAR looking at data that could help improve such decisions).

We should also pace ourselves. Both, Dr Tedstone and Dr McGuire invited researchers not to overstate the impact of our research nor expect the results to be implemented tomorrow (or even in a year!). There might be more pressing ongoing policy matters, there might not be a public demand or political interest in this area – but this all might emerge in some years.
Still, all this has to start with a conversation. Where to begin? Figure out who in civil service might be interested in your research: ask Public Health England, see if anyone in the local authority deals with it, and check out the Royal Schools. You may come across names reading government documents. It can be a bit of detective work. One thing for sure, as Prof Watson pointed out: they are less likely to find you so do reach out.

For an ongoing relationship, invite a civil servant/policy maker to contribute to your research management committee or in another form to be engaged in some other ways in your research. Dr Tedstone suggested they may not have the time but they rarely get such invitations and would be glad to take up on the offer. Whatever you do, start reaching out to policy makers early. In fact, Prof Watson suggested starting “almost before you thought about the project”. If that opportunity has passed, the next best chance is … right now.

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