How Can We Close the Gap Between Researchers and Policymakers? Lessons from migration policy

To bring researchers and policymakers closer together, interdisciplinary work, transparency, and institutionalised networks need to be promoted, write Dahrendorf Forum researchers Josefin Graef, Lisa ten Brinke, and Marie Wachinger.

In mid-November, researchers from the Mercator Dialogue on Asylum and Migration (MEDAM) and the Dahrendorf Forum met with policymakers at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) in Brussels to discuss the latest research findings on perceptions of migration in Europe and their implications for policymaking on both national and EU level.

Participants identified the persistent gap between researchers and policymakers concerning the production, dissemination, and application of knowledge about migration as one of the key challenges. Three aspects in particular provoked discussion: the trade-offs between accuracy and efficiency; the tension between disciplinary boundaries and the ‘big picture’; and the value of objectivity in an emotionalised political context.

Participants agreed that a productive exchange requires us to tackle the frictions between the conceptual and methodological demands of studying complex social relations, and the practical demands of both academia and politics as professions. Producing accurate, valid results and evaluating them for policymaking takes time. But time is an important commodity for both policymakers and—in light of increased pressure on the higher education sector—researchers. The former are confronted with pressing issues in need of urgent solutions and find it difficult to make room in their busy schedules for reading expansive research reports. The latter, meanwhile, are not rewarded for writing accessible review documents and policy-focused reports, given that the publication of scientific papers remains the yardstick for academic achievements.

From this discussion, a related issue emerged: the need for policymakers to respond to highly complex issues that defy disciplinary boundaries. Genuinely interdisciplinary work is needed to help policymakers answer the ‘big questions’. Bringing together insights from different perspectives, methods, and empirical data creates a more complex picture that corresponds better to social reality—and potentially informs better policymaking.

However, in the social sciences, as elsewhere, these boundaries continue to shape how knowledge is produced. Between inductive and deductive approaches, qualitative and quantitative methods, and different terminologies for the same social phenomena, it is not always easy to bridge the gap between different research traditions and projects.

Fortunately, cross- and interdisciplinary research projects are becoming increasingly common, as more researchers are starting to appreciate the ways in which such synergies can lead to more innovative insights. Younger academics are especially keen to explore the possibilities opened up by such work, in particular with respect to migration. However, a lot more needs to be done to reduce the boundaries between academic disciplines, methods, approaches, and terminologies.

The current political environment, in which popular policy narratives are challenging the liberal-democratic consensus and disinformation is thriving, hampers the exchange between researchers and policymakers. Since the onset of the ‘refugee crisis’ in central and western Europe in mid-2015, migration has become a highly politicised topic, and public trust in politicians’ ability to make competent decisions and researchers’ ability to provide ‘objective’ views on migration has declined. This is illustrated not least by the heated debates surrounding the UN Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration to be signed in Morocco in mid-December.

However, establishing a common ground for the production and communication of knowledge about migration, the workshop participants agreed, is indispensable for providing public goods. To promote this, we need to emphasise that research findings do not present an ‘absolute truth’. Instead, scholarly knowledge acquires authority from the network of institutions and practices that produce them. Only if the latter are strong can we create reliable knowledge.

In light of this debate, we conclude with the following recommendations to further strengthen the links between research and policymaking on migration and other subjects:

1. Promote cross- and interdisciplinary work to collect data on migration that is both more comprehensive and more detailed in order to inform good policymaking.

2. Increase the transparency of the research process, its normative foundations, and the insights it can and cannot generate—and how this translates into policymaking. This will help to manage expectations from researchers, policymakers, and the public.

3. Work towards greater institutionalisation of contacts between researchers and policymakers. This could be done, for example, by allocating a separate dissemination budget to research projects, and making policy-related work an integral part of researchers’ career progression. The organisation of one-on-one meetings, in particular between junior officials and early career researchers, would be another useful step in this direction.

4. Activate and support ’multipliers’—including think tanks and local actors, such as mayors—who can act as mediators between researchers and policymakers on the national and EU level, and can thereby function as managers of change.

The workshop itself is evidence that being exposed to new perspectives and engaging in conversation with other fields of research and action, even for two hours, can make a difference. Organising more events that follow the style and format of this event can therefore make an important contribution to closing the gap between research and policymaking.

Josefin Graef is Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Dahrendorf Forum based in Berlin.

Lisa ten Brincke is Research Associate at the Dahrendorf Forum based in London.

Marie Wachinger is Research Associate at the Dahrendorf Forum based in Berlin.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.