Speaking a common language

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As UK universities gird themselves for publication of the first Research Excellence Framework results, it’s interesting to reflect just how country-specific such preoccupations are. REF might be the focal point around which many British university administrators’ orbits are currently revolving, but here in the US, to mention the ‘impact’ agenda is to be met with near-uniform blank faces.

At the recent annual conference of ASHE, the Association for the Study of Higher Education, a rather different set of concerns was in evidence. By far the most conference sessions were devoted to student issues – with college access and readiness, student persistence, completion and outcomes, and tuition, fees and financial aid all featuring strongly. Also receiving significant attention were matters pertaining to identity, diversity and marginalisation in the academy.

Among the remaining sessions, a fair number were devoted to topics relating directly to faculty, from career progression and pedagogy to attainment of leadership positions. Meanwhile the history of higher education and its future – with a particular nod to globalising trends – both garnered attention.

But what of the research mission and academic knowledge exchange? In contrast to these other topics, this year (as last) the engagement agenda showed itself to be a somewhat niche preoccupation. This year’s conference was held in Washington, DC, and so I found myself in a number of fascinating sessions focusing on policy engagement, with input from the policy as well as academic world.

From an academic’s perspective, one interesting area of discussion centred on what sets the academy apart from other research providers in its offer to the policy world. The conclusion?

  1. The peer review process, which at best lends weight to the claims set forward (but at worst provides academics with an inflated sense of the value of their work).
  2. The time available to academics to get to grips with complex areas of scholarship and to think through their implications.
  3. The academic as critic, who has the freedom to ask the questions that advocacy groups won’t.

That said, speakers with a background on the Hill were keen to point out that ‘we don’t have time to wait for the perfect answer’. So does this mean that appreciation of academia’s long view extends only as far as the principle, not the practice? Not necessarily. Rather, the skill would seem to lie in finding the perfect balance. Having reached a conclusion, it’s then incumbent on the policy-engaged academic to nail her or his colours to the mast and be unafraid to make policy recommendations.

Not that it’s all on the academic, of course. Back in 2003 the UK Treasury’s Lambert Review reported businesses’ view of universities as ‘slow-moving, bureaucratic and risk averse’. Policies at the institutional level – like the sometimes protracted procedures of research ethics committees – certainly don’t lend themselves to the type of rapid-response research that policy-makers might wish for. Personal experience suggests that the demands of research ethics boards are currently greater in the US than the UK. Those of us committed to making connections between our own research and communities beyond academia can only hope that procedures do not become yet more stringent and, in the process, strangle what responsiveness we do possess.

A further potential tension revealed itself in the revelation (often suspected if rarely articulated) that credibility, and not merit, is the key to having one’s work noticed. It’s who you know, not what you know – or perhaps more accurately, it’s who you know and what you know.

For those tempted to give up before they begin, on the grounds that they’ll never gain admittance to the old boys’ club, credibility seems in large part (at least here in the US) to rest on prior validation by one of the more elite organs of the press. That being the case, university communications divisions are a vital resource for academics seeking to press release their findings.

While the policy world is one in which speed is often of the essence, it’s no contradiction to counsel that academics must also be prepared to play the long game. Building trust between all parties takes time, and no academic can expect to be able to parachute in at the end of a research project with the policy ‘answers’.

Which brings us to the final – and for my money the most fundamental – of the lessons to emerge from the ASHE policy sessions. Audience is all important. Keeping this in mind is crucial throughout the research process. Identifying a potential policy audience for a research project can affect what precisely is researched, and how. As one such ‘user’ put it, for a study to be policy ‘relevant’ it has to be about the user, not just the researcher.

It isn’t, though, a matter of design for policy relevance, publish in academic journals, share with the policy world, and be done. Research needs to be translated if it’s to be at all comprehensible to policymakers. In fact, more realistically, if it’s to be read at all.

Communicating with policymakers is, by and large, a quite different form of communication. They want, so they tell us, ‘actionable intelligence’ – recommendations that they can act upon. They want reports that get to the point (see ‘actionable intelligence’) and don’t bog them down in unwanted discussion of research method. And they want sensitivity to the realities of the policy process – so if there are constraints on what’s possible, they would prefer this to be reflected in the recommendations made.

So far, perhaps so familiar. I, for one, have certainly heard these same points made by policymakers in the UK. But what really brought me up short was a question that this raised for one conference delegate: could our academic writing be better? Maybe it’s not that we, as a profession, don’t write sufficiently well for policymakers. Maybe we should be doing a better job of writing for all our audiences.

I’ve come to conclude that this is something we all – whatever our role, whatever our interests – could benefit from reflecting on. And that we should be making a far more concerted effort to ensure that our students, too, learn this valuable skill.

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