I'm a final year student in Economics at the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) at the University of Essex. The first chapter of my PhD investigates peer effects in take-up of free school meals (FSMs) for example, does the fact that more of my classmates take a free school lunch make me more likely to do the same, and if so, why? This work is relevant to the ongoing policy debate about extending entitlement to free school meals, or making them universal.
I was encouraged by ISER communications staff to publicise the findings of my original working paper. All universities want, and increasingly need, to demonstrate that their researchers make an impact, so they were pleased to help me draft a press release (external website). We also recorded a podcast for the ISER podcast series.
Coverage of my research initially appeared in The Observer (external website). This was helped by professional contact between an ISER communications staff member and the News Editor who ran the story. Subsequently, there was widespread coverage in both local (Daily Gazette) and national newspapers and online (educationbusinessuk.net), all reproducing the press release sent to the Targeted News Service.
I was invited to write columns for two trade magazines for childcare (nurseryworld.co.uk) and teaching professionals, to be interviewed on BBC Essex local radio, and much later, to speak at the Welfare and Policy Analysis Series at the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion at the London School of Economics.
Good Knowledge Exchange (KE) should invite the attention of stakeholders from outside your field. In my case, I engaged with educationalists, caterers, and the Children's Food Trust. They were able to point to sources of evidence I was previously unaware of. This way I learned about data on the numbers of schools who separate out those eating school meals from packed lunches.
With this information I was able to be much more specific in the resulting paper about why there are peer effects in take-up of free school meals. This improved the contribution my work could make to the economics literature on welfare non-participation generally.
Reflecting on my experience, how would I advise students considering KE? Firstly, don't hold back from KE if you feel your work isn’t finished: it might need the KE to make it finished.
A potential risk is that your audiences may want your research to be about something it is not - for instance, in my case, 'why free school meals are a good thing'. You’ll need to be clear exactly what claims can and cannot be supported by your work. It will be tempting to play up the significance of your work, particularly in live settings like radio interviews where you will have little thinking time. Instead, know exactly what you want the audience to take away.
In my case, 'making free school meals universal would cost a lot of money to provide to people who don't 'need it', but looks like this would virtually eliminate non-participation among the most deprived children, who really do need it'. For me, doing the podcast was an excellent way to get used to this in a less pressurised situation.
Finally, take opportunities, but not indiscriminately. Being in demand is a sign of a successful campaign, and interest may flare up again later, in my case following the announcement in September 2013 that free school meals will be made universal for some year-groups. KE activities are interesting and enjoyable but do be prepared to turn things down, particularly if they essentially entail you providing free copy.