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Why do researchers find it so hard to connect with policymakers?

I am relatively new to the world of academia, but am starting to understand why it is so hard to build connections between researchers and practitioners.

Previously, I had worked for international aid organisations, and I often felt frustrated when researchers seemed to have little interest in making their work accessible or relevant.

There are of course examples of excellent partnerships between researchers and practitioners but, at least in the aid sector, academia was often joked about as the other kind of ‘extractive’ industry – taking everything and giving little back.

A lot of reasons for this disconnect have been discussed – to do with the language that academics use, or about different systems of career incentives. I wonder though how much of it has to do with the motivation to communicate.

I recently had my first academic journal article published. And the process helped to give me some insight into the minds of academics.

When you uncover something new there can be a flush of excitement about an idea – something that you want to tell people about.

Yet both the strength and the problem with the academic system is that the new idea – and that moment of excitement - is then dragged through months, or even years, of critique and questioning.

My article – which talks about the concept of democratic ‘freedom’ in Myanmar – was reviewed by about ten different people. And from the initial drafts through to journal submission and then finally copy editing, I re-drafted and edited the paper countless times.

On one hand, all of those stages made the final article far stronger.

On the other hand, the endless reviews and redrafting took away every last scrap of the original enthusiasm I had for the ideas. The thought of re-reading the article, let alone writing a blog or scheduling meetings with practitioners, makes me feel slightly sick.

Part of the issue is that knowledge only gains its legitimacy in academic circles when it reaches the stage of publication. And academics often feel that it is only at that point that they have a platform to communicate their research, or engage with policy implications.

I certainly have a new appreciation for the rigors of academia and the efforts that researchers make to hone their ideas.

But I wonder whether the time to engage with policymakers is not in the wake of the completed publication – when enthusiasm is at a low ebb - but in those moments of initial discovery?

The ideas may not be pinned down as precisely, but the inspiration to communicate is higher.

After finishing an academic article it is hard not to have the feeling that your work is done. Reaching out to practitioners with a messy first cut of research findings may be a more realistic aim.

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