Thoughts on the Intersection of Communication Research and Policy

September 13, 2011
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Over the past few years, the field of communication has been engaged in a variety of collaborative initiatives, and quite a bit of self-examination, related to the issue of the field’s relevance to communications policymaking.  These activities stem from a persistent concern that the field has not achieved sufficient prominence or influence in the policy arena, despite presumably having quite a bit to offer policymakers in their efforts to effectively address the wide range of policy issues and concerns confronting them.

I’ve been involved in a number of these discussions and activities over the years, probably because in my career I’ve demonstrated both a willingness and (fortunately) an ability to play an active role in various dimensions of the communications policymaking process.  This is, I assume, also why I was invited to contribute to this topic here.  So I’ll try to offer a few observations and opinions about the place of communication research in communications policymaking.

First, it seems reasonable to say that the relevance and stature of our field, both within academia and beyond, is to some extent a function of our ability to meaningfully engage with – and influence – the relevant policy issues of our day.  Such engagement, I believe, can pay dividends within academia in a variety of forms, including faculty lines, faculty salaries, research funds, and doctoral student support.  I believe it can similarly contribute to increased external stakeholder support, such as grants, consulting opportunities, media coverage, and non-academic employment opportunities.  So, I think it’s in the long-term best interests of the field on a variety of fronts that we work to play a more prominent role in the policy arena.

If we don’t, other fields will.  Actually, whether we do or not, other fields will, as the increasingly inter-disciplinary nature of contemporary communications policy questions is attracting scholars from other fields and disciplines, such as economics, science and technology studies, and computer science.  So, the reality is we are already in competition with other fields and disciplines to play a meaningful role in communications policymaking.  All the more reason to be proactive.

The irony, though, is that while it may be in the long-term best interests of the field to try to play a more prominent role in policymaking, it’s not entirely clear that it’s in the short-term best interests of the individual faculty member. For instance, one risks getting tagged with the dreaded “applied” researcher label by one’s colleagues (this remains a bit of a scarlet A at some institutions).  As such, you might find your career trajectory affected – both within your current academic unit or in terms of your efforts to move up the ladder to higher quality institutions.  The communication field is, of course, incredibly diverse; and so there are plenty of schools and departments in our field for whom this kind of engagement with policymaking has never been seen as part of their identity or mission.

Also, being an engaged policy researcher frequently involves responding to research questions or issues raised by policymakers; and in so doing you run the risk of being criticized for not being very pro-active in your research agenda, or for allowing  your research to be constrained by the (possibly misguided) assumptions or priorities held by policymakers.  Again, this is something that can affect your career trajectory.

And finally, not all policy research projects lend themselves to publication in academic journals.  Consequently, there is the possibility that you’ll end up spending a significant amount of time on a project that won’t pay too many dividends in your academic career.

And so, while I think the field as a whole is coming around to recognizing the importance of being more policy relevant, it’s going to take quite a while for the academic faculty incentive and reward system to line up accordingly.  No one’s ever accused academia of moving quickly.

So, for the foreseeable future, the incentives to engage as a researcher in the policymaking process need to be largely self-generated.  And there are a variety of incentives worth mentioning, ranging from the opportunity to make a few extra bucks from time to time; to the opportunity to reach and inform an audience beyond the fairly small and narrow audience that reads our journals and books; to the satisfaction that comes from trying to contribute to the solving of interesting real world problems.  Personally, I’ve found some of these incentives to be quite powerful; but of course it ultimately all depends on what exactly it is you want out of your academic career.

Assuming, then, that engaging with policymaking is something you want to do, the next question then is how do you do it? How does one inject one’s (presumably policy-relevant) research into the policymaking process?

There are a lot of potential paths that can be traveled here. Personally, I’ve found linking up with individuals or organizations that do this sort of thing regularly to be an effective strategy.  That is, be sure to disseminate your research not only to your academic colleagues, but to members of the public interest and advocacy communities, foundations, NGOs, and relevant industry associations.  These folks are not only good at getting relevant research in front of policymakers (presuming it’s research that supports their policy position), they’re also better than we are at recognizing which aspects of our research have the greatest policy relevance. I’ve experienced a number of instances in which a finding I didn’t see as particularly interesting was seen by a member of a public interest organization as quite important.

Also, keep an eye out for calls for papers from those small, often DC-based conferences that a select few academic units, research centers, foundations, and NGOs sponsor with the specific goal of bringing policy researchers, policy advocates, and policymakers together.  These conferences typically don’t follow any kind of predictable timetable.  They emerge out of a particular funding opportunity or in response to a particular policy issue.  You’ve probably noticed that you don’t see too many FCC or congressional staffers at ICA.

And, of course, make sure your research is accessible online, through your university or personal web page, or through hubs like the SSRN or Policy-relevant research generally doesn’t have as long a shelf life as some other types of academic research; and as we all know, academic journals are incredibly slow.  Moreover, neither policymakers nor policy advocates have the time to read these journals.  So don’t rely on journals to help inject your work into the policymaking process.

And, a final note of caution: be ready to have your work torn to shreds by whichever stakeholder(s) come out on the short end of your findings/conclusions.  These criticisms may not be fair, and they might even get personal.  But the stakes are a lot higher in policymaking than they are in academia, so a very thick skin is a must.


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One Response to “ Thoughts on the Intersection of Communication Research and Policy ”

  1. Danny Kimball on September 15, 2011 at 10:13 AM

    Thanks very much for posting this. As a grad student looking to land at exactly this intersection of research and policy, I find this very helpful. It seems like in our field, academia and the policy sphere often want different things out of a researcher and negotiating these tensions requires positioning and presenting oneself differently depending on the context. It’s looking to me like an especially difficult balance to strike to start an academic career, as the short term interests you mention related to an academic career trajectory can too easily overtake long term interests for a policy-engaged position. Your work to bridge these gaps is much appreciated.