Bridging the Academic Research – Public Policy Divide: Time to Beat the Goliath – or Join Forces?
January 20, 2022
In the study of public policy development, the impact of political culture on decision-making is fundamental. Political culture is defined as the shared ideological beliefs on how a political system functions, which influences all levels of policymaking.1 Education and higher education are not immune to this influence, thus the need for students and researchers in this field to examine national, state, local, and institutional policymaking through a political lens and understand that the political system has policy actors that promote various political cultures in the policymaking process.
Academic research at its core should be unbiased (or at least identify any known biases), promoting no political agenda that may disrupt the philosophical quest for truth...however, academic research...gets little mention in public discourse.
Intermediary organizations, such as think tanks, philanthropic foundations, advocacy groups, and news media, play a major role in agenda setting and policymaking, particularly in education, and they are very adept at getting their research into the hands of policy actors. These organizations act like brokers between academics and policymakers, translating ideological beliefs and academic jargon into easy-to-digest morsels, usually in the form of bulleted, actionable policy recommendations.2 Intermediary organizations prevalent in the higher education arena include Complete College America, Educause, Third Way, Lumina Foundation, Brookings Institution, Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute, just to name a few. Many of these intermediary organizations can be placed on a political spectrum and have missions/objectives that advocate for specific political cultures.
Academic research at its core should be unbiased (or at least identify any known biases), promoting no political agenda that may disrupt the philosophical quest for truth. However, academic research, as opposed to advocacy-oriented intermediary organizations, gets little mention in public discourse. Education reporters generally look to current events for ideas for publications, not academic researchers’ topics of interest. Intermediary organizations spend a great deal of time networking with the nation’s most influential media outlets and establishing an elaborate social media presence. Intermediary organizations tend to have the infrastructure and funding to heavily circulate publications and reports. (At any given time, reports from one or more of these intermediary organizations are on the desk of some senior academic officer in higher education.) Education reporters rarely look to peer-reviewed journals for the inside scoop. In fact, within Education Week, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, Yettick found that advocacy-oriented think tank reports had a higher probability of being included in each newspaper than peer-reviewed, academic research.3
Education reporters rarely look to peer-reviewed journals for the inside scoop.
Peer comparisons are also how states (and institutions) move forward with educational policymaking, also known as policy diffusion. Policy diffusion refers to the tendency for states to mimic other states' behavior in policymaking (e.g., state lottery scholarships). Research has shown that intermediary organizations do lend a heavy hand in influencing state policy diffusion efforts with their aggressive marketing efforts, partisan alliances, and clear policy recommendations.4
So, how does academic research contend with such a Goliath? How can we make academic
research the first-place education reporters look for the inside scoop, legislators
for policy development, and higher education leadership for institutional strategic
Here are a few recommendations:
Within each article, topics should be of relevant and current context with academic jargon kept at a minimum and conclude with concise recommendations for action. Many prominent journals are adding research-to-practice style submission formats. For example, the Journal of Student Financial Aid not only requires an “Implications for Practice” section for all manuscripts, it also now has research briefs and reflections in practice briefs that are more aligned with how intermediary organizations structure their research.
At most initial meetings of the calendar year, the Louisiana Board of Regents presents an overview of higher education-related priorities for the upcoming state legislative session, which is viewable to the public. On the federal side, this gets a little trickier. Many news outlets and intermediary organizations publish supposed legislative priorities for the upcoming year, and each congressional member usually publishes a legislative agenda on their social media sites. Furthermore, researchers should look to institutional strategic plans to gauge relevant priorities for their institution.
Policy actors look for research evidence to support their beliefs and agendas. Academic researchers must act as policy entrepreneurs. Twitter is a hotspot for academic research promotion and networking, either posted via personal Twitter handles or via journals who want to increase readership of recently published articles. Many political correspondents now openly claim that Twitter is their primary news source.5 An op-ed in a high-profile newspaper can also catch policy actors’ attention. Other venues include blogs, podcasts, and YouTube videos.
Public policy institutes are located within several higher education institutions and act as intermediary organizations to state and national legislators. They also have a high success rate in influencing policymaking. These centers/institutes include faculty and staff who are well-versed in translating academic research into marketable recommendations. Most importantly, they act as objective, non-partisan units with no political agenda.
Researchers should provide one-sheeters, infographics, and checklists for best practices on their policy-relevant research to departmental leadership. Departmental leadership, in turn, should present these materials to senior leadership. The goal is to get local, academic research on the desk of senior leadership instead of intermediary organization reports.
If you can’t beat them, join them. One of the reasons why intermediary organizations are more successful at reaching policy actors is because they have substantial funding for networking, marketing, operational strategy, etc. For example, the Brookings Institution has an endowment of $355 million.6 Academic researchers who want to market their expertise to policy actors could consider joining forces with think tanks, who can spend the capital to bridge the gap between research and policy.
1 Heck, Studying educational and social policy. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. (2004).
2 Gandara, Rippner, & Ness, Exploring the ‘How’ in policy diffusion. Journal of Higher Education, (88) 5, (2017): 701-725.
3 Yettick, The research that reaches the public. Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit. http://epicpolicy.org/publication/research-that-reaches (2009).
4 Dougherty, Natow, Bork, Jones, & Vega, Accounting for higher education accountability. Teachers College Record, 115(1), (2013): 1–50.
Hillman, Tandberg, & Fryar, Evaluating the impacts of ‘new’ performance funding in higher education. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 37, (2015): 501–591.
5 McGregor, & Molyneux, Twitter’s influence on new judgment. Journalism, 21(5), (2018): 597-613.
6 Brookings Institution. (2020). The Brookings Institution and affiliates: Consolidated financial report. https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/2020-audited-financials.pdf
Written by: Anna C. Bartel, PhD
Anna C. Bartel, PhD is the Assistant Vice Provost for Academic Programs and Support Services in the Office of Academic Affairs at Louisiana State University. She is a triple alumna from Louisiana State University, earning her Bachelor’s in International Studies, her Master’s in Political Science, and her PhD in Educational Leadership and Research. Dr. Bartel has been with the Office of Academic Affairs since 2016 and has another five years prior in the Office of the University Registrar. She is the instructor of record for Policy and Politics of Higher Education in the online Master’s in Higher Education Administration program. Dr. Bartel is also currently an assistant editor for the Journal of Student Financial Aid.
Dr. Bartel’s research agenda revolves around the political and public policy spectrum of education, concentrating in postsecondary finance and policy evaluation. Her doctoral writings and publications concentrate on the necessity of higher education for workforce improvement and economic growth, the review of state and federal bureaucratic processes, the politics behind universal financial aid, and the evaluation of education tax policy.