Thursday Thought: Advocacy and the social sciences
Updated: Sep 28
For this week's Thursday thought, we were delighted to partner with SSHIFTB, a network for social scientists working on TB. It might take a little longer to read than usual, but we think it's worth your time, especially if you've been grappling with the question: "What is advocacy even, and can or should researchers do it?"
You can find more about SSHIFTB, and read other articles in this month's newsletter, here.
When I tell someone that I work in global health advocacy, the images that spring to their mind can be vastly different. While some have me spending my days writing campaign slogans on banners, others see me as a desk-dwelling writer of dry policy reports. It’s taken my grandmother a little while to understand I don’t work with the Prime Minister. The truth is somewhere in between.
Over the last few years, I have had the chance to work with scientists who are keen to leverage their expertise, experience, and position to shape policies and investments that improve the lives of people affected by TB. For some, advocacy is a self-explanatory extension of their research. For others, advocacy feels fraught with danger, a step beyond their expertise at the cost of their credibility and, ultimately, their ability to secure funding.
In those conversations, I’ve found it helpful to break down what advocacy means. At its core, advocacy is about influencing decisions within political institutions, informed by either evidence or values, or a combination of the two. The range of activities that fall under this umbrella can be vast, and in my experience, most scientists feel comfortable at some point along the evidence-informed advocacy spectrum.
That spectrum really starts with policy-informed research, designed from the outset to help solve a problem that policymakers are grappling with, rather than fact finding or advancing theoretical frameworks alone. Once the research has been completed, policy engagement can start, which ranges from ensuring research findings are easy to access and understand for policymakers, through to personally participating in policy processes as an expert advisor.
At the more campaigning end of the spectrum, we can see scientists work together to advocate on broader policy and funding issues that shape their ability to work and are often more tangentially related to their specific research focus. In TB, this kind of advocacy has often focused on mobilising high-level political leadership or increased investments. All along that spectrum, there are ways of framing scientist-led advocacy that protect the scientist’s credibility and unique voice.
In my experience, there is a huge amount of enthusiasm for doing this kind of work, but a lack of infrastructure for supporting it- whether that be for TB scientists trying to influence the UN High-Level Meeting on TB, to engage in international guideline development or participating in National TB Programme Reviews. While there is a growing evidence base for what works and doesn’t work along the advocacy spectrum, too many scientists are left to their own devices, relying on a combination of their network, innate skill, and pure luck to influence the policy process. All too often, I’ve met researchers who are disheartened when the policy decision doesn’t go the way the evidence points, who are out of ideas for how to convince decision-makers, and who feel their side-of-desk efforts are not worth their time anymore.
It would surprise me if the contributors of SSHIFTB weren’t already doing lots of work along the policy engagement spectrum and didn’t also feel some of that frustration. But the perspective of social scientists can be crucial in finding a way forward, not least because so many of the frameworks we use to about how to achieve policy change are based on social science research.
My own personal background is in the social sciences, having had the privilege of being supervised by SSHIFTB member Professor Jens Seeberg while completing my master’s thesis exploring the translation of WHO TB recommendations into national policy frameworks. That research, and my professional experience of working for NGOs and professional bodies in the years since, have demonstrated the critical importance of researchers understanding and engaging in the policy process.
Today, the NGO I work for, Campaigns in Global Health, is looking at different models to better support and coordinate scientists’ engagement. And so, we pose a question to the SHIFTB readership: Could you see yourself being part of an effort to strengthen scientific input in policy processes, leveraging your social science insights to equip colleagues with best practice, creating a space for exchange and encouragement, and identifying opportunities where coordinated engagement has a real chance at driving better, evidence-informed policy?
If the answer to any of that is yes, or you have some experiences or frameworks that you think would be helpful for us to consider, please get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org – we’d love to hear from you!