Researchers seek shortcut to communicating for influence

At a workshop held in Bangkok on the 22nd and 23rd of November, organised by the SUMERNET Secretariat in SEI Asia, researchers from the Sustainable Mekong Research Network (SUMERNET) took advantage of a rare opportunity to engage with high level policy makers and regional journalists about how to make their research more useful and accessible to policy makers and the public. The workshop’s panel discussions gave the researchers a chance to learn directly from two key audiences they are targeting, policy makers and the media. The regional experts provided practical instruction on the preparation of policy briefs and press releases.

Dr. Wijarn Simachaya, Deputy Permanent Secretary for Thailand's Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, stressed that, "The way you present information to policymakers is very important, you need to use clear, easy to understand language". This call for clarity was echoed by Johanna Son in the panel discussion with journalists, who said: “Imagine you are explaining your research to your neighbour. You wouldn’t start with your research methodology you would start by asking yourself 'what’s the problem?', 'what’s the story’?”. 

A number of parallel themes emerged in the discussions of the policy makers and journalists. Policymaker Dr. Surachai Sathitkunarat, of Executive Director of APEC Center for Technology Foresight, joked that "'Connections' is not a dirty word.  You need strong stakeholder involvement for policy to be a success." Meanwhile Reuters' journalist Thin Lei Win asserted that researchers needn't fear journalists, and by being ready to build relationships and 'give something to get something', even without a report in hand, they can reach a wider audience for their research.

One researcher observed that agriculture and environment issues are not attractive to the media and asked how research on such issues could be made more appealing. Another researcher commented, "We find it difficult to write in a “layman” language easily understandable to our target readers".

A member of the media panel advocated finding ways to link research issues to those popularised by social activists or civil society groups, or by linking to current concerns and news through topics such as food prices. The policymakers again paralleled this theme when Dr Surachai suggested that researchers need to research the background and existing policies of politicians, as well as finding groups that can influence them, to improve the chances of proposed policies being taken up.

Ms. Ngan Le, Acting Chief of Trade Office, Vietnamese Embassy Bangkok, concluded by advising that researchers “need to sell policy like you would sell goods. Be short, simple, clear and attractive”.

Financed by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) and the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN), one of SUMERNET’s key goals is to expand the knowledge base available to decision makers guiding development in the Mekong Region. As the ten, second phase, projects come to their conclusion, the researchers on these projects have further honed their existing skills as academic writers through writeshops, but, for some, writing for a policy and media audience has been a new challenge. After this workshop, many of the researchers feel much more confident about getting their message across to the wider public.

By finding new ways to communicate their research findings and learning the lessons from these experts, the SUMERNET researchers can reach their goal of genuinely expanding the knowledge base available to decision makers in the Mekong Region. 

One participant commented that "In the past we have sought to map out our stakeholders and engage with policymakers early on, now I can see that we must do much more of this to turn our research into policy".

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"You can learn more about these projects by watching a series of brief interviews with SUMERNET researchers here:"