Help! My stakeholders aren’t interested in my research

Taken from Issue 1: Fast Track Impact

The two most common reasons why stakeholders may not be interested in your research are that:

  • Your research is too narrow, niche or specific to be of significant interest; or

  • Your research does not fit with the ideology of the decision-makers.

If your research is too narrow, then you probably need to broaden your work. You will need to do some investigation into the issues that are of particular relevance in your area, so that you strategically broaden the coverage of your work to issues that are pertinent to the interests of the relevant audience. There are two ways you can do this:

1. You can broaden your work yourself, either by asking new research questions or drawing of the evidence of others publishing in the area; or

2. You can team up with other researchers working in your field to create a collaborative impact initiative, in which you create joint policy briefs and offers of help to industry, Third Sector and others. This latter approach tends to work best if there are others within your institution that you can team up with, to avoid issues of competition.

Overcoming an ideological clash is typically more difficult. This is most common in policy circles, but can happen elsewhere too. In policy settings, the most common first solution is to approach an opposition party that has a good chance of winning power in the next election, and getting evidence-based policy ideas into their next manifesto. Some researchers take a more adversarial approach, creating alliances with pressure groups that are opposing the Government, businesses or other organisations that will listen to the findings of their research.

An alternative approach is to take the research to another country that is experiencing comparable issues. In the UK, that could be England Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, or it could be a country on the other side of the world. In some cases, you may have to create a collaboration with a research team from that country first to generate evidence with them that builds on your former work to have the credibility required to be taken seriously by decision-makers in that country.

If you are really having problems and are prepared to invest some serious time and energy into this, then there is another option available to you. You can make a “pincer” movement from the bottom up and the top down to communicate evidence from your research to the people who can affect change within the organization that is not listening to your work. First, working from the bottom up, find people lower down the organizational hierarchy who you can help, based on your research and other capabilities, focusing on what they need and how you can make their jobs easier, but not hiding the nature of the work you are doing, and the fact that it may be ideologically contentious for the organization. Gradually, as you build trust, find out who are the more senior, middle-ranked people in the organization with some decision-making power and access to the main decision-makers at the top of the hierarchy. If an internal colleague can introduce you to them, based on a long-term relationship of trust built on useful work you have done to help them, there is a good chance that the new colleague will trust you by proxy. As a result, you are much more likely to be given the opportunity to talk about your research than you would otherwise have. Also, as a result of the work you have done already with your colleagues, you will have a much better idea where the ideological sensitivities lie, and how you might be able to frame your work in a way that is less contentious.

At the same time, the second half of the “pincer” movement is to work from the top down. This is much harder for most researchers to do themselves, and may require help from an intermediary who already has the ear of the decision-maker. This means that the first step is to find out who has access to the decision-maker, and who the decision-maker goes to for new ideas and advice. Depending on who these people are, it may be possible to reach them and communicate your research in ways that will resonate with them. They are then much more likely to be able to frame your work in a way that is ideologically palatable to the decision-maker. If they then seek advice from their team or ask their team to implement a decision based on your research, they are not going to be greeted with skepticism or concerns from their staff, because they already know about and understand your evidence.