groups » Global Health News, Events and Conferences » Three misconceptions about the impact of research on policy

(first published by Research Fortnight).

Readers will not need reminding that achieving impact is a high priority for research governance.One major factor in this is getting policymakers to engage with and use research evidence. This is no easy task, as shown by the plentiful research into how evidence is used in different countries and policy areas, and how its use might be increased.

Recently, we carried out the largest systematic review in 10 years of the factors affecting use of evidence in policy. We used 145 papers from around the world, covering areas from health to criminal justice. Despite the many different contexts, the barriers to research having an impact on policy were remarkably similar. Dissemination, costs and poor access to research were recurring areas of difficulty.
Naturally, good relationships and collaborations between researchers and policymakers are helpful. This is a common finding—we already knew that policymakers often prefer to get information and advice from friends and colleagues than from papers and journals. Policymakers often take advice from academics they know from university or school, which, in the UK, tends to mean Oxbridge, the London School of Economics and Political Science, University College London and King’s College London.

Policymakers and researchers, of course, have very different pressures, working environments, demands, needs, career paths and merit structures. Their definitions of evidence, use and reliability are also likely to differ, so they have very different perceptions of the value of research for policy-making. But we know surprisingly little about what policymakers actually do with research. This helps to perpetuate academics’ commonly held view that policymakers do not use evidence—a negative stereotype that is hardly conducive to trust or collaboration. We still do not understand how to improve
research impact on policy or, indeed, why we should try.

It is worth asking why overcoming these barriers is not a priority for most policymakers. It is possible, or even likely, that politicians do not want their pet policies undermined by evidence. However, we believe the research into this question—as well as much ofthe debate about research impact and evidence-based policy—is based on three flawed assumptions: that policymakers do not use evidence; that policymakers should use more evidence; and that if research evidence had more impact, policy would be better.

These assumptions tell us more about academics than about policy. Policy uses evidence all the time—just not necessarily research evidence. Academics accustomed to giving 45-minute seminars do not always understand that a hard-pressed policymaker would prefer a 20-second phone call. Nor do researchers understand the importance of legitimate evidence such as public opinion, political feasibility and knowledge of local contexts.

There are many finger-wagging papers telling policymakers to ‘upskill’, but few urging academics to learn about the policy process. What are the incentives for policymakers to try to engage with science and evidence when it takes too long and is often poor quality, and they are told they are not skilled enough to follow it?

There are important unanswered questions about the use of research in policy. We don’t know how evidence actually affects policy or how policymakers use evidence. Is it to create options? Defeat opponents? Strengthen bargaining positions? What is the role of interpersonal interaction in policy? And does increasing researchimpact actually make for better policy? Academics have any number of stories about poor policies that ignore research, but less in the way of rigorous evidence showing the beneficial impact of research.

Other countries have tried creating formal organisations and spaces for relationships to flourish. In the United States, for an academic to move from a university to a think tank such as the Brookings Institution is seen as a promotion, not a failure. And Australia’s Sax Institute provides a forum for policymakers and academics to come together, similar to the ideas behind the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Science and Policy.

It remains to be seen how influential these organisations will be, and whether they succeed in changing the behaviour of policymakers and academics. In the meantime, rigorous studies of the three common misconceptions about evidence-based policy will help us all to understand how—or whether—to get evidence into policy. After all, Solutions are better than excuses.

What are your experiences?


health systems health systems research policy policymakers systematic review

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