Jul 17th 2023

Advocacy and the social sciences


Written by Janika Hauser.

Whether you call it advocacy or not, social science is key to better TB policy and investments!
Scientific engagement in policy processes is crucial but can also feel exhausting, lonely, and ill-
coordinated. We’re trying to change that, and social science insights are a key part of the puzzle.

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
janika@cghproject.org – we’d love to hear from you!