Science, Finance and Innovation

Connecting evidence to policy: seven key lessons for researchers

4 min


Vaqar Ahmed

How can researchers engage more effectively with policy-makers? This column, written by an experienced ‘policy entrepreneur’ in Pakistan, provides some advice.

These are times in which data and facts are less respected, and where emotions and populist messages tend to dominate. For researchers living in this age, perhaps the most important goal is to position themselves in a manner that their evidence doesn’t get ridiculed. They need to give a message that has policy relevance but also resonates with the core values of humanity.

I will be candid here. In our experience at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) of managing several policy engagement programs – ranging from redistributive tax policy to social enterprises for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals – most researchers remain bystanders. Either they do not have the incentives to make that extra effort and engage with a wide array of policy-makers, or they don’t have the capacity.

This column will not talk about bystanders. I am interested in talking to researchers who are willing to engage. They may make mistakes, but they are willing to adjust their approach to engagement.

For this group of researchers, SDPI can offer a few messages. Again, this may not be the perfect advice, but these are just some lessons from our recent engagements with policy-makers in Pakistan.


1. Don’t just offer recommendations: accompany policy-makers on the reform journey

On most occasions, policy-makers are not interested in being students. Frankly, their jobs don’t allow time. But most of them appreciate it if you are easily available, and if you can engage over the medium to longer-term, often on a pro bono basis. Of course, not all researchers will be able to do so, but this can make a difference if you wish to ensure that your ideas penetrate the boardroom and cabinet huddles.

2. Learn to think in terms of political costs and benefits

When was the last time you read the governing party’s manifesto? If you wish to secure face time with politicians, you need to find entry points in that document. You may even need to anchor your advice in their election-time commitments – just to gain traction, which could eventually buy you time with them. The goals described in the manifesto are sacred to them: build on this, even if you aim to diverge later.

3. Rethink capacity-building

Can training civil servants in ‘evidence uptake’ result in improved policy-making? At SDPI, our experience suggests no direct correlation. We have run hundreds of such capacity-building sessions. Based on these meetings, let me offer a reality check: often the person who gets nominated for training is the idlest. The person with real power is too important to spend time on them. But if the real policy-maker won’t show up, what can be done to attract their interest?

SDPI recently combined personal development lessons with an evidence uptake discussion. We made it more about how smart knowledge could make you a smarter policy-maker. The linkage was hard to construct in the beginning, but by the end, participants went away with the feeling that they needed to put aside some time for forced learning, to make their thinking clearer.

4. Understand the policy-makers attention span

At SDPI, we are helping a key decision-maker in national-level tax reform. Each time we use WhatsApp to alert him to a piece of evidence, he demands a five-line summary and no more. I don’t blame him: in this era of information overload, policy-makers are justified in requiring succinct messages.

Researchers need to see themselves as policy entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs are in the business of selling, and you are trying to sell policy choices. On most occasions, you do not have the liberty of several months to package your advice. You have to communicate promptly, and the messaging should sound like this is the idea whose time has come.

5. Learn how to demand respect for evidence

It now takes almost zero cost to engage with politicians. The policy briefs, one-pagers, and op-eds are tools from the past. They are only effective if supplemented by several social media feeds. Use Twitter – and recognize that even tweeting has limitations; in which case, use Instagram: a picture often speaks louder than words. Promote innovative use of data: visuals that help your argument can be most effective. Post, re-post and request other ‘thought leaders’ to share your social media content.

6. ‘Policy-makers’ doesn’t just mean politicians

As a policy entrepreneur, you are expected to understand not just your subject area, but also how the ecosystem of public policy is configured in your country. Parliament or politicians will be only one part of the story. Policy-making exercises involve an extensive role for civil servants, the judiciary, ombudsman offices, bar associations, and several other institutions. Even covering all these bases is usually not enough. Within the executive branch, the hardest thing to ensure is inter-agency coordination. Even if you can get on top of this, you will still find frequent turnover of civil servants.

7. The golden rule

Find champions within the system, and work with them for a lifetime. Make these champions a hero; give them profile; let them take the credit, as credit in itself is a big motivation for them to move, to think, to act, and eventually to lead change.


Vaqar Ahmed
Joint Executive Director, Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI)