Matchmaking Challenges for Researchers and Policymakers


Unmet Desire
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Interaction between policymakers and researchers is important for informed decisionmaking. But more often than not, as Adam Seth Levine lays out in “Unmet Desire” (Issues, Spring 2022), such linkages are rare. Truly, as Levine points out, policymakers have an unmet desire for science. Establishing these relationships requires deliberative effort and, we would add, time. Two- and four-year terms of office are common across federal, state, and local government elections, thus creating unpredictability in the time and effort required to build strong, professional bonds between researchers and policymakers.

We have long felt that the Vannevar Bush federal-centric view of science policy overlooks real, transformative opportunities at the state level (see “Science for Hyper-Partisan Times,” Issues, Spring 2021). Levine takes this concept a step further and provides examples of both needs and opportunities within local governments. In doing so, he provides a not-too-subtle reminder that small governments oversee almost $2 trillion in annual spending, and their policies can have a large impact far outside the DC Beltway.

Regardless of the policy portfolio, Levine’s overarching thesis revolves around the challenge of matchmaking. Researchers often don’t know the policy needs (or who to contact in the policymaking space to identify those needs), and policymakers likely aren’t aware of available data or expertise (or who to contact at a local college or university to have these needs met). While it is important for researchers to find potential opportunities to be in service to their community, state, and country, the onus should not fall solely on them. Policymakers and their staff should also proactively seek out experts (and their data) who can assist them in their policymaking goals. The matchmaker examples that Levine offers, including his nonprofit Research4Impact, certainly fill a need.

Researchers often don’t know the policy needs (or who to contact in the policymaking space to identify those needs), and policymakers likely aren’t aware of available data or expertise (or who to contact at a local college or university to have these needs met).

Also noteworthy are the survey data Levine presents. Almost half of local policymakers responded with concern that a researcher might be pushing a political agenda. This alarming statistic is worthy of future exploration to better understand a key, if not the key, component of policymaking: trust, or the lack thereof, between policymakers and the academic research community and vice versa. Levine’s observations have already generated discussions with our Collaboratory team here at UNC Chapel Hill to consider standing up a survey instrument to address similar questions at the state level and better understand opportunities and barriers to connecting university expertise and talent to serve the people and policymakers within North Carolina. 

We should not be shy about addressing the elephant in the room. Nor the donkey. Without acknowledging the challenges of the country’s current (and hopefully transitory) hyper-partisan division, we will be unable to work through these challenges and find solutions to pressing issues we all face. Levine had it right. Matchmaking is an incredibly important role that we should all be willing to undertake to meet the unmet desires of policymakers wishing to engage with research experts at all levels of government, while keeping in mind the old trope, “All politics is local.”

Executive Director

Research Director

North Carolina Collaboratory

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

COVID-19 caught policymakers and the scientific community flat-footed. This inability to iterate at scale between the need for urgent policy decisions and fluid bodies of scientific research was in some degree unsurprising, as Adam Seth Levine illustrates, given how little experience both sides had in collaboratively working toward solutions to rapidly emerging dilemmas such as the pandemic.

Some of the frictions at the science/policy interface, however, were more predictable and therefore frustrating to observe as scientists worked frantically toward an understanding of the virus, how it affected different populations, and the efficacy of different public health measures to curb its spread.

First, COVID presented the scientific community with an unprecedented demand for real-time policy advice. This also created an unenviable catch-22 situation in which scientists were asked to inform policy (or correct misinformation) with a highly fluid scientific evidence base that they knew they would have to revise over time. In a number of cases, scientists let themselves be dragged into short-term battles over specific policy questions or pieces of misinformation, using scientific evidence that turned out to be unreliable or even wrong later on.

What lessons (if any) has the scientific community learned from the pandemic about how to better navigate policy interfaces in the future?

Second, the pandemic forced science to operate under a level of public and journalistic scrutiny that it was utterly unprepared for. Normally, much of science’s routine processes of sorting through competing evidence, eliminating dead-end stands of research, and agreeing on reliable models of explaining the world play out at disciplinary meetings, in academic journals, and in other corners of the ivory tower. During COVID, society turned its spotlight on science, with scientists, pundits, and policymakers litigating evidence and disagreements on social media, the pages of the New York Times, and cable news shows.

This was complicated by a third reality that science was slow to recognize during the pandemic. In its attempt to keep up with the virus and its variants, research moved at breakneck speed. In the process, accelerated peer review, rushed preprints, and an unwillingness to wait for replications obliterated many of the guardrails and speed bumps that typically guide us toward a reliable evidence base. Missteps, as a result, were predictably inevitable.

So what lessons (if any) has the scientific community learned from the pandemic about how to better navigate policy interfaces in the future? Unfortunately, we seem to show a very limited appetite for engaging in critical self-reflection. Instead, many in our community have reverted to evidence-agnostic deficit thinking that blames science-policy disconnects during the pandemic on public audiences for not trusting science enough, being misinformed, or not understanding the scientific process. Of course, institutional trust and shared, evidence-based understandings of the world are crucial foundations of healthy, enlightened democracies, especially during disruptive crises such as COVID. But so is a scientific enterprise that constantly learns from its own missteps, both in terms of how it does science and how it responds to rapidly changing demands that policy and public audiences will make from it in our post-COVID and pre-next pandemic world.

Taylor-Bascom Chair in Science Communication

Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor

University of Wisconsin-Madison

Adam S. Levine describes his recent national survey that examines whether local policymakers have an “unmet desire” to collaborate with researchers in their areas. The survey found that many county and city officials would indeed like to have more informal “collaborative exchanges with local researchers to discuss scientific evidence relevant to policy challenges they are facing.” If these engagements are going to scale—which Levine’s research suggests could happen—public and private research funders will have an important role to play.

As part of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ evidence project, I work with many of these funders while helping facilitate the Transforming Evidence Funders Network (TEFN). In my experience, grantmakers’ efforts tend to shift the informal exchanges Levine describes to formal collaborations. That said, the tone, incentives, and expectations for both formal and informal engagement among researchers and groups outside academia are set, in part, by grantmaking practices.

If these engagements are going to scale—which Levine’s research suggests could happen—public and private research funders will have an important role to play.

TEFN participants have identified a range of field-tested, promising practices that funders can use to support “engaged research”—research that results from scientists collaborating with policy, practice, or community groups to create and use evidence. Grantmakers who support these efforts often focus on deepening the relationships among collaborators and making engagement more routine. These practices are consistent with Levine’s call to develop incentives and matchmaking structures that enable collaboration. For example, funders can:

  • Provide financing and other types of support for nonresearchers to ensure that they have the time, skills, and resources needed to meaningfully engage in projects.
  • Embed matchmakers—a term Levine used to mean boundary-spanners or expert intermediaries—to facilitate connections, blend different types of expertise, and help manage power dynamics between researchers and their nonresearch partners.
  • Allow time for engagement while research questions are being refined, so that nonresearchers can provide on-the-ground perspectives that inform project priorities.
  • Encourage or even require routine engagement between partners over the course of a project.
  • Include nonresearchers in review panels to ensure that diverse perspectives are valued in the early stages of the grantmaking process.
  • Train researchers and nonresearch partners to support the variety of impacts their collaborations can generate.

As we continue to invest in these approaches, we should be mindful of how inequalities persist in academia; still, I’m hopeful that supporting these joint efforts can help mitigate existing inequities. Many engaged research efforts weave together multiple types of expertise by diversifying who has access to and can participate in the research process. This collaborative approach can give people who have been excluded from, or harmed by, the academic system the opportunity to shape research with their interests. 

Investment in engaged research alone, however, will not ensure equity. We need to recognize, learn from, and provide resources to researchers who are committed to engaging with people and organizations outside of academia. It’s also important to remember that many women and scholars of color have prioritized these collaborative exchanges without the support of their academic institutions—even in the face of outright disapproval from their colleagues. Funders and other leaders in academia should seek feedback from such scholars who have built trusting relationships outside of universities and research centers. As we create support systems that address local policymakers’—and others’—unmet desire for engagement with researchers, we should ask ourselves: Who is being rewarded for these partnerships? And how can we build equity into and through these collaborations?

Principal Associate

The Pew Charitable Trusts’ evidence project

Cite this Article

“Matchmaking Challenges for Researchers and Policymakers.” Issues in Science and Technology 38, no. 4 (Summer 2022).

Vol. XXXVIII, No. 4, Summer 2022