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Blog

How do scholars produce policy relevant research?

Randall F. Clemens

As I mentioned in my last post, I was named as an Emerging Education Policy Scholar (EEPS). The program, a collaboration between The Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the American Enterprise Institute, provides the opportunity for young, policy-minded scholars to collaborate with and learn from a range of key policy players.

Our first meeting took place a few weeks ago. The long list of impressive participants included advisors on Capital Hill and in the White House, representatives from large foundations, researchers working in think tanks and the government, and reporters from a variety of publications. 

The conversations were always candid, often refreshing, and sometimes daunting. We discussed the relationship between research and policy. Yes, research influences policy. However, the path from research question to legislation is often circuitous and involves a mixture of concerted effort and unpredictable chance.

The meeting was enlightening and rewarding. Here are a few themes—many of which complement the emerging criteria Bill and I present in our article “Qualitative Research and Public Policy: The Challenges of Relevance and Trustworthiness”:

Relevance

How do scholars engage with the most pressing policy issues? Policy windows open and close quickly. During those times, politicians use relevant research to either shape or support policy decisions. Importantly, individuals during the meeting frequently cited the need for research to both address contemporary issues and also say something specific about policy implications. For instance, while a study may find that more low-income students need to obtain postsecondary degrees, such a finding will likely not guide legislation. Policy makers want to know about the effectiveness of specific interventions; they worry about what to do and how to fund it. There was a heavy premium on experimental and quasi-experimental studies. I will discuss the role of qualitative research in another blog.

Audience

How do scholars appeal to multiple audiences? Several participants stated the need for scholars to produce dual publications. If you publish in an academic journal, translate the findings for a blog at Huffington Post or Edweek. Why? Policymakers receive stacks and stacks of research. They rarely read studies, but they do read blogs.

Visibility

How visible are scholars among multiple channels? Especially due to social media, academics have the opportunity to engage multiple audiences. The tenure process still relies on publications. However, when thinking about a scholar’s ability to influence policy, publicity (or “klout points,” using Rick Hess’s term) matters.

Relationships

With whom do scholars engage? Academics who influence policy often have connections with key change agents. Get to know policymakers. Talk to reporters. Engage funders. Informal networks provide predictable and unpredictable opportunities.

These four interrelated themes—relevance, audience, visibility, and relationships—often undergirded our discussions. We will reconvene in June; I’ll keep you updated.