Crossing the research-policy boundary

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Crossing the research-policy boundary
Whether driven by funding institutions, research organisations or the need to inject an evidence base into a growing body of migration policy worldwide, migration researchers are increasingly trying to be more policy relevant. In my work as a researcher, and, now, overseeing research on migration funded under the EU’s Horizon research framework programmes, I have seen and experienced the difficulties attached to this. Being policy relevant is a pre-requisite for researchers funded under various streams of the EU’s Horizon budge. It entails at least having a clear idea about how research work can be useful and usable to  officials working in policy circles.
If the aim is to be policy relevant, a researcher needs to understand the decision-making context with which they want to relate. Researchers cannot simply ‘direct’ a grand idea toward the policy world and hope that the message arrives. Rather, it is important to understand the stakeholders; the environments in which they operate; the frames that define and give meaning to such environments; and, the trade-offs involved. I discuss each in turn before concluding with a reflection on how this impacts the practical task of writing a policy brief.
Consider the stakeholders
The first thing to do when thinking about the policy relevance of research is to consider for whom it is relevant. This is not an easy task given recent growth in the migration policy field. Because of this, many stakeholders may be important or be impacted by the outcomes of your research. Nevertheless, it is important to have a clear sense of your target. If, for example, you want to share policy messages that emerged from fieldwork in Senegal. It would be quite different if you wanted to reach out to policy makers in a regional government in Senegal, or the Senegalese national government, or the EU delegation in Senegal, or, instead, direct those messages to the European Commission services in Brussels. Each of these actors have a specific knowledge and understanding about the topic that is different. It is good to set a targeted objective. This can mean tailoring your message towards some policy actors while neglecting others. However, it is a necessary trade-off to package your research outputs in the best possible way and to see the change you hope to ensue.
Overall, if the objective is to be policy relevant, it is a bad idea to ‘simplify’ or water down what you want to say in ‘layman’ terms. Officials working in policy are often quite knowledgeable about the topics that they work on, and so a degree of (moderate) nuance is likely to be appreciated.
Understanding the policy environment
So, who is likely to be able to act upon your research outcomes and its implications? And to what extent? It is not enough to think that this will be ‘policymakers’, because this label is an umbrella for a wide variety of officials working in very different contexts. It also assumes that certain policymakers have a higher degree of power than they actually possess. More than once, after a research-policy workshop, colleagues from the Commission have said to me: ‘I really did not know we had that much power!’. For researchers, this means that it is necessary to know more about the level at which your interlocutors operate; the leeway they have to change things; and the constraints that they face. Many decisions are in the remit of ‘political masters’, but the role of policy ‘pen holders’ should not be neglected. Instead they should be  understood as being part of the environment which embeds powerful narratives about migration, and its causes and consequences.
Framing the message
Intrinsically, migration is associated with a lot of uncertainty regarding its trends and dynamics. As an epiphenomenal issue, meaning an issue which occurs when other changes also occur, it is hard to determine linear explanations about its causes and future developments. However, to act upon them, officials in policy circles need to ground their work in arguments that appear ‘certain’ to them. As numerous scholars find (see, for instance, the work of Prof. Paul Cairney), policymakers need to dissect and simplify complexity into simpler workable assumptions which seem plausible to them.
When it comes to understanding migration, these simplifications normally pivot around explanations of it based on ‘push’ or ‘pull’ factors, considering migrants are either ‘pushed away’ or ‘pulled towards’. This framing of migration as caused by a push or pull factor, is clearly ‘diagnostic’. This is in the sense that it seeks a causal diagnosis of the issues and challenges faced. However, importantly, such a way of framing embeds a ‘prognosis’, meaning that simplification is done in a way which suggests and allows for a course of action to be taken.
Leaving aside for now whether these simplifications stand the scrutiny of research evidence,  it is important to recognise them. This is so that you can strive to relate to the policy expert based on a shared understanding of migration, and of its causes in particular. If your interlocutor believes, for example, that welfare benefits drive migration by being a pull factor, it serves little use to advise on policy changes on migration management without taking this understanding of migration into account. First, this framing of migration needs to be addressed and accounted for, as this shapes the actions that can be taken, which will always be a consequence of such an understanding of migration.
Being able to recognise the frames you are dealing with therefore is the most important element of reaching out to policy. It allows you to identify how and what  you can bring to the specific policy audience that you want to target.
Recognising trade-offs
It is important to be clear about the implications of the suggestions brought forward. To simply proclaim that a law should be changed or introduced might not be very practical. The path to policy change is difficult and filled with hurdles at all stages of the policy process, with complex feedback loops along the way. There will be significant trade-offs associated with change that could be financial and/or political in nature. A policy could require increased spending or could potentially be politically costly. Considering these elements can provide context for policy recommendations and may bring you a step closer to identifying a viable and pragmatic pathway to change. This will help to pave out such a strategy by taking into account the context surrounding the action in question, which policy officials are confronted with on a daily basis. It thereby avoids grand statements like ‘create legal pathways’ without nuancing further what is meant and how it can be done.
Advising through policy briefs
How, then, do you turn research into something that is policy relevant? Often, a researcher will try to condense his or her suggestions into a policy brief, directed to a policy audience with recommendations on courses of actions to take. Often, academics in particular need to rely on this form of communication, as they are further away from the policy context. Building from the review of many policy briefs in my current job, I want to share a few tips.
The most effective policy briefs written by researchers are normally the outcome of excellent research, rather than general ideas or informed opinions. They should be written in a way that, whatever the topic discussed, take into consideration (at least implicitly) the stakeholders involved; the environment in which they work; the frames that define the policies discussed and such environments;  and the trade-offs associated with choices that they would need to make. Addressing these points means you must know your audience. Writing a policy brief means that you are also writing to your audience.
Given the career incentives of academic researchers, the usual audience for their written work is largely fellow researchers. This is normal, as they are working hard to emerge in the field, and usually write in a way that is conducive to achieving that recognition in the field. However, many policy briefs that I read seem to have the same outlook, and read more like a researcher-to-researcher written communication. Often, there seems to be little effort to push these boundaries and try to create a conceptual and even empathic connection with a reader sitting in policy circles. The key to a successful policy brief making the knowledge available which has been a produced in the course of research, whilst also doing so in a way that does not reinforce a research versus policy confrontation. Consideration of the points discussed in this blog are the best way I see in creating such a bridge.
Carrying out this work is time consuming. It is clear that it can hardly be a corollary activity for researchers occupied with their research work. A researcher aiming to carry out excellent research that could reach policy circles might not actually have the time. To counter this problem, it would greatly benefit the migration scholarly field if more research was carried out horizontally which dissected migration governance structures and processes. Homogenising ‘policymakers’, ‘national governments’, ‘the EU’, and ‘the European Commission’ into single entities and labelling them prevents us from understanding their complexity as decision making context. More research analysing these dynamics would help migration scholars working on other topics to understand stakeholders, frames, and the environment in which decisions on the issues that they work in are being made.
Finally, while this effort for policy relevance may be time consuming, it is also a pre-requisite for research funded in the frame of Horizon 2020, and in Horizon Europe that starts in 2021. It is, therefore, essential that researchers who have been awarded funding, as well as those who have applied for funding, can clearly develop a realistic strategy for increasing the relevance of their research in policy circles, including through partnerships with those who have more experience. In this blog, I set out some aspects which might help. These are of course not exhaustive, and do not touch upon the steps that can be taken  in policy circles to be more receptive to good research and to enhance migration policies through better evidence. These suggestions, however, may, be a good first step for the  research world to take so that it can foster non-confrontational research-to-policy relations. This would therefore help to close the divide between people working in research and those in policy, which actually might not be as big as is so often assumed.

Luca Lixi, Migration Policy Officer, DG Research and Innovation, European Commission.


The EUI, RSCAS and MPC are not responsible for the opinion expressed by the author(s). Furthermore, the views expressed in this publication cannot in any circumstances be regarded as the official position of the European Union.