Academy Fellow Professor Adam Graycar wrote this piece for The Mandarin on Sunday 18 June 2023 and it has been republished with permission.

For as long as I can remember academics have lamented that their research does not have the policy impact they think it should have. 

Based on my long experience here are five lessons that academics should note. 

Shortly after I moved from a university post to a position in government colleagues would say to me “how can you work with these idiots”. What I found is that most Ministers are very bright. 

In my 22 years of senior public service positions, in both the Commonwealth and State governments and working with Liberal and Labor ministers in both I have never worked with a stupid minister. Some were sharper than others, some more ideologically committed, some more rigid, some better informed, but I have yet to find one who was as stupid as some academic colleagues thought. The same goes for senior public servants. 

Some of the smartest people I have worked with are public servants. 

Lesson 1 for academics is not to underestimate those in government and acknowledge that they are probably as smart as you, and probably as well informed, if not more so. 

Academics need to better understand the political context within which policy is developed. We need research which provides clear evidence of what works, where and why, and we need to better understand the culture of the practitioner. 

However, research and evidence are not always the driving forces behind policy. We need to understand the interplay of values, habit and tradition, lobbyists, pressure groups and consultants, as well as pragmatics and contingencies and budget constraints. 

Lesson 2 is not to assume that evidence and research will have primacy over other factors. 

Academics are sometimes unwilling to make inferences. Ministers don’t want tentative or provisional statements “on the one hand, and on the other, and we need more research …” 

A lot of our work highlights the complexity of social issues rather than pathways to solutions. Ministers want to know what works, get timely results, and have confidence in the results. Academics are used to exploring all the issues and gathering all the evidence and writing it up. If policymakers have to make a decision by tomorrow at 2pm they will use just what they have and not wait until you finish your research project. 

Lesson 3 is to note that different time scales apply, and that is not a bad thing. 

The product that academics are best at producing, the complex report with hundreds of supportive footnotes, is not likely to be read by those in government. 

Likewise the article in a highly respected learned journal, which is what academics value and for which they are rewarded, is usually replete with jargon, contains a conceptual framework and a literature review, and often has a conclusion that there needs to be more research. This is not the best form of communication for policy. 

When I ran a policy research agency we had strict word limits on our policy briefs and a user-friendly template. We also produced a series of one-pagers – all they contained was one graph or one table and one paragraph of explanation, with a link to the research on which it was based. It was harder to write the one-pager than a longer report. Some academics thought we had trivialised our product. 

Lesson 4 is keep it simple and structured, and there is no need to show off how much you know. 

Crafting personal relationships is very important. Academics should invite public servants to university seminars (but make sure it will not be boring or a turn-off). 

At conferences, academics should engage with public servants and use that as a basis for follow up. I have often struck up a conversation at a conference and said to the public servant “if this is of interest to your department/ branch I would be happy to come by your office with a couple of colleagues and kick the idea around/ run an informal workshop”. 

When I was at the Australian National University a colleague and I ran a series we called Lunch with the Secretary. 

We invited the Secretary of each Federal Government department to a simple lunch. We would invite about six academics who worked in their area and asked the Secretary to bring a few departmental officers. 

The discussion focussed on what the department wanted to know, and on what research our people were doing. It was always fruitful, and led to more interaction. 

When we started, people said “you will never get them to come”. But over a two year period virtually every departmental secretary came to a modest sandwich lunch. 

When I left ANU and went to a local university I tried it again, but could not always rustle up six academics who were sufficiently cutting edge, and not likely to embarrass. 

Lesson 5 is to establish working relationships with public servants and bring them into your research sphere, and put them onto your mailing lists. 

This piece was originally published in The Mandarin and republished with permission.