In the penultimate blog of his series looking at barriers to effective research communication and uptake, Andrew Clappison turns his attention to the need for increased competency among researchers in the area of research communication and for funding bodies to incentivise communications more systematically.
In the previous blog in this series, I stressed the continued importance of research communication in the drive for effective use of research in policy. Particularly at a time when there is a growing focus in the policy world on experimental or quasi-experimental design methods. Methods, that let’s be honest, mean little to most people, including many policymakers!
The point is the demand for research and evidence translation should be growing, but strangely it’s not. Why? Well, funding is a huge issue, and policy actors are prioritising the production of what they deem ‘gold standard’ research, over the need to share and translate. You guessed it – the balance is wrong!
Cream doesn’t always rise to the top
I have had the painful experience of working with research funding bodies who blindly assume that ‘gold standard’ research will rise to the top and that communication is a dangerous luxury. It’s worth reminding organisations like this, that we actually live in the 21st century and the merits of research communication have been well documented.
In my experience, taxpayers and donors are not being given enough information on research outputs designed to feed into policy, which I don’t think fosters a good relationship between Jo-public and the research community.
In policy impact terms, effective communication of research findings is vital. Building a story around the research journey and the potential impact of the results need to be spelt out very clearly. RCT’s and systematic reviews contain complex research methods and I would expect policymakers to want to understand the approach and the results as clearly as possible.
Of course, many research programmes are excellent at communicating and translating their work for others but in my own experience, the vast majority are not. We need to ask for more and ensure better access is given to research programmes and their research. Ultimately, researchers need more support in competency building, and funders need to further incentivise effective research communication.
Readdressing the balance: Competencies need to be built and sustained
I’ve facilitated a number of workshops for researchers designed to help them communicate better, to become more policy savvy and utilise different communication channels. Workshops are just one piece of the jigsaw in terms of building competency in this area, and while I enjoyed every workshop I have been involved in, my impact was negligible because a fully joined-up or systematic approach to competency building was never implemented.
What does that look like you might ask? It needs varied components, competencies are not just built, but sustained through incentives, organisational culture, and having an overall strategy for behaviour change.
Researchers, their Institutions and funding bodies need to work together and create a positive culture and environment for effective research communication. This needs to be a managed process that all actors buy into, not a one-off workshop.
But, how can we start to bring about this change? I recommend three things:
- Researchers need an all-round education in communication
Competency building approaches often assume that it will be the researchers doing the communication. This may often be the case, but we also need to be open to the fact that they may not be the main communicators as part of a research programme.
As I questioned in the opening blog of this series, “Even if researchers’ “responsibility” for communicating their research stops at appointing expert help and being accountable for their outputs, do they understand enough about what is required to make such calls and to supervise progress?”
We need to give researchers an all-round education in communication, so they can make the correct calls and become advocates for a more integrated approach, no matter what their chosen role is.
- Research funding bodies need to shift from promoting tick-box to outside-the-box activities
Research funding bodies are immensely powerful when it comes to initiating behaviour change, but often research communication is positioned as a tick box activity. There are some wonderful ways of communicating your research, but 99.9% of research uptake strategies I have read are dull, lack imagination and are disconnected from the research process and the real world! I know this sounds harsh, but sadly I’m talking from experience of having read many.
Funding bodies need to value communication more – it’s a wonderful way of showing they are doing their job properly if they promote its effective use. They need to try and inspire researchers, and intermediaries alike, to shift away from tick-box to outside-the-box activities.
- Don’t be afraid to pay for expertise
Research intermediaries are often good value for money and can take the pressure off research staff – but they need to be allowed to be creative, frontline and have some budgeting power.
Research programmes must invest in good planning, and communication must be fully integrated into this – clear objectives need to be set and activities planned that support these. Research intermediaries also need support in building competencies, and this often gets overlooked by funding bodies. We need to invest more in intermediaries and ensure that there are ‘industry standards’ relating to the skills that intermediaries hold.
I know, It’s an ambitious agenda, but with a little more thought and better execution we can really increase the quality and value for money research communications offers – addressing those concerns that have led research communication to lose some prominence in policy relevant funded research.