Evidence-Based Knowledge and Policy
Academics bleat on about how policymakers don’t listen to us and they don’t pay attention to any evidence. Well, academics don’t present evidence in a way that makes people listen. It’s not particularly compelling. When it’s loads of regression models and graphs, who cares? Tell a story, have a good narrative that sits alongside the good data, and people will pay more attention. It’s incumbent on policymakers to listen to evidence more, but it’s also incumbent on academics to present evidence in ways that makes policymakers listen.
One of the interesting things, and it’s not a contradiction, it’s a consistency, is that we need to tell fewer stories to ourselves and to each other about all sorts of things, including the sorts of lives that we should lead. In order to get scientific evidence listened to and taken seriously by policymakers, we need to tell stories.
We need to have good narratives that back up the evidence and the science. As we all know, all policy is really about narrative. We need austerity. Well, that doesn’t mean anything. There’s just a huge story and narrative that underpins austerity. Everything in policymaking is about the narrative. Academics need to understand that a little bit better than they do currently in order to have an impact on public policymaking—understand the narrative, understand the story, and be able to talk in a way that makes policymakers listen more than they do currently.
From health to happiness to stories, personally, I’ve had opportunity to do more public-facing activity, not just talks, but television and things like that. I’m quite liking the opportunity to take science to the public. The public appetite for any good science presented well is quite strong. There’s an assumption that people don’t care and don’t want evidence or science or knowledge, but that underestimates people. My working‑class background is one where there was little formal education. In fact, none of my family had formal education beyond the point at which they had to stay at school, but they were interested in stuff.
Finding people that could present interesting stuff to them in a language and in a way that would appeal to them, is something that I’m now realizing is where my public-facing life might go. I’ve learned to do that better. I’ve filmed TV that is for the masses, as it were, and that’s taught me that even though I thought I was a pretty straight academic, and I spoke in a lay language compared to how most other academics speak, I still spoke like an academic. I’ve managed to find ways of communicating more effectively with lay audiences.
Just the same way as academics need to learn to effectively communicate with policymakers, we need to understand much more about the people that we’re talking to than we do currently. Maybe that’s the main message. It’s an obvious thing to say, but most interesting things probably are obvious. Understand the audience that you’re communicating to, and do it in a language that is accessible to them.