Today, governments are expected to promote the use of research in practice settings. Evidence-based practice is viewed as the goal of public services in many developed nations (Nutley, Walter & Davies, 2007). In addition, governments also give attention to use of research-based information in their policy making processes. Developed nations have employed a range of seminars, meetings, and advisory groups as ways to improve use of research in policy making and policy implementation. Politicians have tried many activities to encourage and increase use of research-based information in policy development (Nutley et al., 2007). The literature on this subject, shows that mechanisms used for improving the uptake of research in policy contexts are similar to the situation in practice settings. Drawing on theories from the social, organizational, and behavioral sciences, they attend to dissemination of information; interactions among researchers and policy makers; social influence; and facilitation, incentives, and reinforcements (Nutley et al., 2007). However, the strategies vary according to the scale of a project, the nature of the intended impact from research, and the implementation context. In reality, many strategies draw on more than one of these options in order to encourage better use of research (Nutley et al., 2009).
In the UK, the discussion of the research-policy relationship has been underpinned by an implicit assumption that there is consensus about the use of research. A consensus-based role for research has often dominated the development of initiatives to enhance the use of research in policy making (Nutley et al., 2007). Some of the literature draws on a market-based model of the research-policy relationship to explain the initiatives designed to improve the supply of research and to increase policy demand for research information.
Market-Based Model: Supply and Demand Framework
From the supply side, the problem of research use has been demonstrated as a lack of appropriate flow of research into the policy process (Nutley et al., 2007). The issue of research supply relates to whether the research is good enough for policy use. Thus, to enhance the research-policy relationship from the supply side, efforts need to focus on the research capacity and on the way in which research can be commissioned by and communicated to those in policy roles (Nutley et al., 2007). In terms of research capacity, governments have invested heavily in research or higher education institutions. In the UK, for example, the government has poured significant funds into developing social science research and the capability of social scientists via the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) (Nutley et al., 2007). Emphasis has also been placed on making the research information more accessible to the policy making community. Research commissions and individual scientists or researchers have been encouraged to communicate and connect more with decision makers to improve the use of research-based information in government settings. Another issue from the supply side, reported by the literature, is an inconsistency between research agendas and policy making (Nutley et al., 2007). Research information is more likely to be producer or researcher driven rather than prompted by policy makers or practitioners. Thus, greater effort by research funders to encourage the application of research to policy questions is recommended.
The emphasis of the demand side is on reforming policy processes to involve more evidence-informed deliberations. Efforts outlined in government reports include: requiring evidence-based spending bids, making commitments to publish the rationale and evidence for policy decisions, etc. (Nutley et al., 2007). Meanwhile, the recent trend of open government and the improvement of government transparency have positively affected the use of research-based information in policy making processes as politicians have to provide the public with strong evidence of the rationale for their political decisions. Governments have held research seminars for ministers, have called on external experts for advice on the development of new policies, have drawn on evidence from formal and informal stakeholder consultations, and have created policy advisory bodies involving researchers. All of these actions present the public with the message that government decision making needs research-based evidence (Nutley et al., 2007). However, one concern raised by Nutley, Walter and Davies is that the public can see the possibilities but no one knows to what extent research information really does influence policy. In this sense, initiatives from the demand side are advised to focus on changing the culture of policy making, such as policy makers’ attitudes and their understanding of evidence. This idea aims to develop their ability to critically appraise evidence. Professional education and training are seen as key factors to enable research use, supported by the provision of access to that information (Nutley et al., 2007).
After introducing initiatives form both the supply and demand sides, there is also a need for governments to see the linkage between the two. A balance between supply and demand of research information is expected. However, in reality, the inter-relations between the research and policy communities may be limited (Nutley et al., 2007). Two approaches are recommended to mitigate the inconsistency between the research-based information that is either needed and/or provided.
Recommendation 1: Integrating Researchers into the Policy Process
To enhance the relationship between supply and demand, governments have been encouraged to integrate researchers into decision-making activities. The predominant, conventional approaches to using scientists or researchers are either to seek the advice of a highly regarded individual, or to convene a panel with diverse expertise from relevant subject areas (Sutherland & Burgman, 2015). Practices conducted by the UK government to integrate researchers into policy processes have included involving researchers in policy consultation processes and co-locating researchers alongside policy colleagues. In this way, researchers become familiar with the policy making process where their advice will be received and considered. Another way to engage researchers in decision making is to develop functional government units, such as DARU (Drugs and Alcohol Research Unit) and PAT (Policy Action Teams) from the scan of best practices by the UK government (Nutley et al., 2007).
The literature on integrating researchers into policy processes raised concerns about the accuracy and reliability of researchers’ opinions. Their advice may be influenced by their values, their mood, whether they stand to gain or lose from a decision, and by the contexts in which their opinions are sought (Sutherland & Burgman, 2015). Researchers, also, are not required to follow the ethical requirements established for public servants, such as remaining politically neutral, responding to the interests of the public interests, etc. Thus, less accurate information or biased advice from researchers and experts could contribute to serious policy failures (Sutherland & Burgman, 2015). In this sense, policy makers are advised to critically consider the evidence offered by experts and researchers. All of the research information must be tested to minimize bias. Accuracy may be improved by independently provided evidence. That is, experts should be held accountable for their opinions (Sutherland & Burgman, 2015).
Recommendation 2: Developing Intermediary Broker Organizations
Scientists often contend that public policy is disconnected from their research results (Bednarek, Shouse, Hudson & Goldburg, 2016). Another recommendation to improve the linkages between the supply and demand sides of research is to bridge the two by establishing intermediary organizations and individuals to act as brokers between research and policy communities (Nutley et al., 2007). These knowledge brokers, whether individuals or agencies, are expected to improve the chances that decision-makers will adopt research-based policies. Policy makers can be uninformed about research findings. Researchers and experts can make contributions to policy-making; however, they may not have the time, resources, networks, or understanding of how to identify and engage with policy making processes (Bednarek et al., 2016). Thus, a separate kind of professional organization—one that has the time and expertise to engage with both science and policy—can play a vital role at this interface (Bednarek et al., 2016). Intermediary brokers may be individuals with a wide variety of expertise, including in science, grant-making, interdisciplinary work, policy analysis, facilitation, public engagement, and communications (Nutley et al., 2007).
One successful example of a bridging organization is the Lenfest Ocean Program which functions as a science-policy intermediary broker. This program supports scientific research that is useful to decision-makers. The program grants funds to scientists who are interested in influencing public policy and encourages them to ensure that their results are clear, relevant, timely, credible, and sensitive to stakeholders’ needs and perspectives (Bednarek et al., 2016). The Lenfest Ocean Program aims to help provide policy-makers with more usable and relevant research and refine their range of policy options. Individual scientists working in this program can take advantage of a wide variety of communication training and policy exposure opportunities (Bednarek et al., 2016). In this way, research information can have a better chance of reaching policy authorities. The Lenfest Ocean Program is a good example of how science-policy intermediaries devote their complete attention to forging a more dynamic relationship between scientific research and public policy development (Bednarek et al., 2016).
Bednarek, A. T., Shouse, B., Hudson, C. G., & Goldburg, R. (2016). Science-policy intermediaries from a practitioner’s perspective: The Lenfest Ocean Program experience. Science and Public Policy, 43, 291-300. doi:10.1093/scipol/scv008
Nutley, S., Walter, I., & Davies, H. T. O. (2009). Promoting evidence-based practice: Models and mechanisms from cross-sector review. Research on Social Work Practice, 19(5), 552-559.
Nutley, S. M., Walter, I., & Davies, H. T. O. (2007). Using evidence. How research can inform public services. Bristol: The Policy Press.
Sutherland, W. J., & Burgman, M. A. (2015). Use experts wisely. Nature, 526, 317-318.
Author: Jinguo Sun
This blog post is part of a series of posts authored by students in the graduate course “The Role of Information in Public Policy and Decision Making,” offered at Dalhousie University.