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Connecting researchers with policymakers, the media and the public: Standing Up for Science workshop

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Connecting researchers with policymakers, the media and the public: Standing Up for Science workshop

NIHR ARC-GM PhD Student Melissa Surgey (@MelissaSurgey) blogs about her experiences and reflections from attending a recent workshop on 'connecting researchers with policymakers, the media and the public' ...


In April 2022, I had the opportunity to attend a workshop for early career researchers (ECRs) on how to better engage with policymakers, the media and the public both when planning and carrying out our research and when communicating our findings. The session was organised by Voice of Young Science, a network that aims to upskill researchers in high quality public discourse to better contribute to the public’s understanding of academic research.


The day brought together over 75 STEM and social sciences PhD students and ECRs from across the UK – in fields ranging from microplastics to child poverty – with senior academics, journalists, MPs and policy professionals to share experiences, discuss the opportunities and challenges (and sometimes frustrations) when trying to translate research findings into meaningful action, and get practical advice on how to maximise our research’s impact.


I felt compelled to apply for the Standing Up for Science workshop because of its very tangible connection to my own PhD research which is exploring how the commissioning of health and care services is changing in response to recent policy and legislative changes in the NHS in England. Engaging with stakeholders beyond academia is not only imperative to making sure my overall research findings have a practical impact, but also that the design of my study, data collection and analysis speak to the “real world” context. Whilst being part of NIHR ARC-GM means there’s a strong emphasis on the “applied” part of research and it facilitates connections with local and national health and care partners, the Standing Up for Science workshop was hugely beneficial in helping me better understand my own individual contribution to the policy landscape and public arena and develop the practical skills to put this into action.


The workshop panel sessions kicked off with a lively discussion from three academics – Prof Sheena Cruikshank, Prof Matthew Cobb and Dr Mai Elshehaly – sharing their experiences of engaging with the media and public about their research. Prof Cruikshank spoke thoughtfully about her feelings of civic responsibility as an immunologist to engage with the public respectfully and factually during the COVID pandemic to challenge misunderstandings and mistruths around COVID. This provoked an interesting observation from Dr Elshehaly that as researchers we are conditioned to be comfortable with uncertainty, but that we often forget – or find it difficult – to communicate this sensitively to the public and give them practical information about what to do in response to evidence’s “grey areas”. Prof Cobb shared his experiences of engaging with journalists on social media – with some sensible tips for maintaining our credibility and wellbeing whilst on Twitter – and we all agreed achieving nuance and changing hearts and minds can be very limited on some platforms. 


We were then joined by a panel of journalists and public relations experts – Dominic Hughes from the BBC, Nadia El-Awady from Nature Middle East and Mike Addleman from the University of Manchester – to gain insights into how news stories are produced, and how journalists and university PR teams identify and interview the “experts” we see on the TV or online, usually at very short notice. This session led seamlessly into a discussion on engaging with policymakers, with a panel from a diverse range of backgrounds: Kate Green, MP for Stretford and Urmston; Felicity Algate from the Behavioural Insights Team; and Alex Clegg from the Universities Policy Engagement Network. What really stood out for me from this session was how to navigate the politics (of both the “big P” and “little p” variety) of policymaking, and to carve a narrative around our research that will catch the attention of those with influence. We also contemplated how our own personal values impact our research, and how it feels when the evidence might not corroborate something we personally believe in. A recurring theme from both the journalist and policymakers panels was the value of curating and maintaining a strong network, both through PR and policy teams within our own institutions but also individually with external influencers, such as MPs, civil servants, thinktanks and journalists.


The workshop gave me a lot of pause for thought about my own experiences, both in academia and in policymaking and how these complement one another. Having come to my PhD with a background in NHS management, the workshop reinforced the added value that opening research opportunities to individuals from a diverse range of backgrounds – including those from industry or with professional or clinical experience – can have in connecting academic research to “real world” applications. Prior to starting my PhD, I admittedly had no idea how academia worked, and still find it difficult navigating some parts of the culture: how painfully slow publishing research can be; a focus on purely academic research career paths rather than using our skills in a different but complementary sector; and the competitive nature of funding encouraging a degree of secrecy around our work. Whilst I am fortunate to work in teams where we have an open, collaborative relationship with external stakeholders, a more general disconnect between academic research institutions, policymaking and industry still appears to prevail when I talk to my wider peers. Equally, those outside academia often have very little understanding of how research works or how to navigate this when trying to build relationships with academic researchers.


As someone who very much considers myself a bit of both an academic and an industry professional, I sometimes struggle to reconcile these two identities. The Standing Up for Science workshop drove home the importance of using a common sense approach when planning, carrying out and communicating our research, as well as having the courage to bend some of the long-standing rules to break down barriers between research, policy, media and the public. I hope this is a shift more ECRs will be encouraged to embrace and that universities and funders both help us access support and develop new skills to engage beyond our traditional silos and recognise the value in this.


Published 17/05/2022