The Communication of Research-Based Information in a Public Policy Context: Bridging the Divide

INFO-6100-W2015Research should be an essential component in the development and implementation of public policy. By informing decision makers of the potential costs and benefits of a particular action or inaction, research can contribute to sound decision making. However, the technical and scientific nature of research often may not obviously match the policy implications of decision making processes (Nutley, Walter, & Davies, 2007). This situation contributes to a divide between research and policy. To reconcile this divide, it is important to examine the processes involved in communicating research to policy makers to ensure that research is applied to the development of public policy. Particular emphasis should be given to the barriers that obstruct these processes and the enablers that facilitate more effective communication to help increase the use of research in policy-related activities.

Attempts to bridge this divide are widespread and multidimensional. Some studies identify mechanisms and strategies that seek to improve the use of research, while others examine how learning, knowledge management, and diffusion of innovation theories can improve the uses of research (Nutley, Walter, & Davies, 2007). Furthermore, some studies examine barriers affecting research (Clark & Holmes, 2010; Cossarini, MacDonald, & Wells, 2014; Yang & Maxwell, 2011), while others examine the dynamics of interactions between researchers and policy makers (Gewin, 2014; Singh et al., 2014). The literature suggests a consensus exists that this disconnect must be addressed through horizontal mechanisms of communication that stretch across organizations, sectors, and jurisdictions. The following sections outline three enabling conditions that have the potential to promote horizontal communication and use of research. This discussion also highlights barriers and limitations that must be overcome to successfully implement each enabling condition.

1) Create Opportunities for Interpersonal Collaboration

Increasing opportunities for interpersonal interaction amongst researchers and policy makers can improve the communication and use of research in public policy. While analyzing five different mechanisms that help to create effective research use, Nutley, Walter, and Davies (2007) found interaction to be the mechanism that is most effective. This is because interaction enhances the involvement of policy makers and researchers while contributing to the development of skills, knowledge, and understanding that is necessary for effective intersection of research and policy (Nutley, Walter, & Davies, 2007). Building shared knowledge is significant because scientists are sometimes hesitant to engage in policy-related activities when they do not understand how their work is relevant to policy decisions (Singh et al., 2014). Therefore, increased collaboration and communication could provide a way to reduce this gap. The level of trust between researchers and policy makers could also increase with more interaction (Nutley, Walter, & Davies, 2007).ang and Maxwell (2011) explain that researchers and policy makers both express a desire for more interpersonal communication because it would be easier for them to interact on a professional level once partnerships have been established.

Face-to-face interaction is the form of collaboration that is argued to be the most effective. Nutley, Walter, and Davies (2007) use cognitive and social cognitive theories to explain how individuals develop meaning about what they learn through interacting with others. Shared meaning influences how content is transferred into knowledge, and the process of constructing meaning provides organizational members with identity and cohesion (Nutley, Walter, & Davies, 2007). However, face-to-face interaction is not the only effective form of engagement. Similarly, it is not always the most feasible option in a time-sensitive environment. Gewin (2007) describes how a consensus statement written by two paleoecologists in collaboration with the Governor of California and thousands of researchers was influential in shaping California’s climate change agenda. Although face-to-face engagement between these stakeholders from around the world was limited, commitment to mutual collaboration was present throughout the entire process. The process of creating and presenting the consensus statement through reciprocal dialogue and engagement created a positive impact on the communication and use of research in that policy process.

Without promoting opportunities for interaction between researchers and policymakers, research may continue to stay within organizational boundaries. This silo effect will ultimately reduce how research is communicated and used in policy-related activities. Although face-to-face collaboration has been found to be most effective, it is important to be mindful about other mechanisms of interaction that could be useful.

2) Establish Formal and Informal Communication Mechanisms

A combination of formal and informal mechanisms of communication can enhance the use of research in policy-related activities. Both mechanisms are equally important because they capture different types of knowledge (Nutley, Walter, & Davies, 2007). Formal mechanisms of communication transfer information through linear and centralized processes where senior management determines what research is to be communicated and used in policy (Nutley, Walter, & Davies, 2007). These methods often capture explicit and technical knowledge. Alternatively, informal mechanisms of communication transfer information through decentralized networked processes. The result is greater sharing of power and control surrounding the information communicated between stakeholders through horizontal networks (Nutley, Walter, & Davies, 2007). Yang and Maxwell (2011) show how the importance of inter- and intra-organizational communication and information-sharing networks are growing. For these networks to be effective, organizations need to be technologically, organizationally, and politically compatible with one another (Yang & Maxwell 2011). By focusing on communication mechanisms that balance all three dimensions, policy makers and researchers could support the communication and use of research through more effective information sharing. However, given the contextual implications of policymaking, it is particularly important for organizations to be politically compatible (Yang & Maxwell, 2011). In both formal and informal mechanisms of communication, intermediaries and opinion leaders should bridge the gap between the different interests of researchers and policy experts (Nutley, Walter, & Davies, 2007).

Many benefits result from using both methods of communication. For example, using more formalized approaches to gathering information, such as creating databases, can generate more structured methods for obtaining information to be communicated and used in policy-related activities (Clark & Holmes, 2010). However, Clark and Holmes (2010) explain that formal communication systems are often rare for policy experts as they frequently use unorganized contact lists and engage in haphazard encounters with informed individuals. As such, interpersonal information sharing is primarily facilitated by informal communication through methods such face-to-face interactions and email (Clark & Holmes, 2010). Informal communication can also lead to greater flexibility, and accommodate diverse individual learning and communication styles (Yang & Maxwell, 2011). These attributes contribute to processes of communication that are dynamic and adaptive. Therefore, utilizing the benefits of formal and informal approaches will enhance the likelihood of communicating and using research in policy-related activities. If a balance between both mechanisms does not occur, aspects of knowledge will be omitted. For example, over emphasis on formal communication mechanisms could result in the neglect of tacit knowledge, while too much emphasis on informal communication mechanisms could result in the neglect of explicit knowledge.

3) Developing Cohesion and Consensus around Competing Interests

Nutley, Walter, and Davies (2007) explain how conflicting interests can result from contested forms of knowledge that emerge from different organizational cultures. This scenario encompasses different goals, timescales, and levels of power, information needs, reward systems, and competing agendas (Nutley, Walter & Davies, 2007). These create barriers that prevent successful partnerships between researchers and policy makers from developing. Therefore, it is important to develop an understanding of different organizational cultures while defining clear objectives and open channels for communication to create an environment that fosters cohesiveness (Nutley, Walter & Davies, 2007). Furthermore, it is important to identify and understand an organization’s target audience because a lack of understanding can lead to greater confusion and user disengagement (Cossarini, MacDonald, & Wells, 2014). Being sensitive to competing interests and creating cohesion through shared understanding can help to overcome these barriers and issues.

Gewin (2007) shows the importance of achieving cohesion while integrating research within public policy contexts. With a consensus statement on the effects of climate change having the support of over 3000 stakeholders, its claims were believable to policy makers (Gewin, 2007). Even though policy makers did not have the technical evidence to validate the findings of the report, the support of thousands of experts brought a sense of urgency to act. The Governor respected the expertise of the researchers, while the researchers respected their role of being information advocates rather than policy advocates. This example demonstrates how conflicting interests can be accommodated to achieve cohesion. By creating an environment for cohesion, consensus, and sensitivity to competing interests, research use can be fostered as the barriers surrounding the channels of communication between researchers and policy experts are reduced.


Several barriers exist that prevent effective communication and use of research within public policy. If unaddressed, they will continue to prevent the divide between researchers and policy makers to be bridged. This paper has discussed three enabling conditions that have the potential to eliminate, or at least mitigate, these barriers and improve the communication and use of research in policy-related activities. Once these conditions are implemented, horizontal communication stretching across organizations, sectors, and jurisdictions will lead to the emergence of policy that is built upon a foundation of research.



Clark, R., & Holmes, J. (2010). Improving input from research to environmental policy: Challenges of structure and culture. Science and Public Policy, 37(10), 751-764.

Cossarini, D. M., MacDonald, B. H., & Wells, P. G. (2014). Communicating marine environmental information to decision makers: Enablers and barriers to use of publications (grey literature) of the Gulf of Maine Council on the Marine Environment. Ocean & Coastal Management, 96, 163-172.

Gewin, V. (2014, July 24). Hello governor. Nature, 511, 402-404.

Nutley, S. M., Walter, I., & Davies, H. T. O. (2007). Using evidence. How research can inform public services. Bristol: The Policy Press.

Singh, G. G., Tam, J., Sisk, T. D., Klain, S. C., Mach, M. E., & Martone, R. G. (2014). A more social science: Barriers and incentives for scientists engaging in policy. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 12(3), 161-166.

Yang, T., & Maxwell, T. A. (2011). Information-sharing in public organizations: A literature review of interpersonal, intra-organizational, and inter-organizational success factors. Government Information Quarterly, 28(2), 164-175.


Authors: Elliott Gish, Michael McKinnon, and Jessica Stark


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.

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