• By Laura Whybra
  • Posted on Tuesday 23rd September, 2014

Why don’t policy makers make more use of research evidence?

strong>When we have a headache we reach for the painkillers: scientifically proven remedies that we know will make things better. So why do we not rush with the same speed to evidence-based remedies for social problems? What is it that gets in the way?An international team of researchers has systematically reviewed 145 worldwide studies that explore the impact of research on public policy in order to identify the barriers and facilitators affecting this relationship. They have also charted the views of stakeholders and described the focus, methods, populations and findings underpinning the conclusions of each investigation. The research that most influences policy may not, of course, be the same as the research that shapes practice. And the relationship between policy, research and practice will often vary between countries and cultures as well as between specific areas of policy and relevant academic disciplines. Research from the physical and medical sciences tends to command the highest levels of acceptance and trust among policy makers and the wider public. Its contribution to prevention is also obvious given the way that once deadly diseases have been eradicated. Complexity and complicationsHowever, with social research, the relationship with policy and practice is more complex. Clear-cut results are less common than in medical science and the findings are more vulnerable to academic, political and popular challenges – especially if they touch upon sensitive matters and strong convictions. The impact of social research often reflects the social and economic climate into which it is launched as well as the quality of the science.Complications can also arise over implementation issues – not least when interventions are inadequately described by researchers and guidance is offered at too general a level to help policy makers or practitioners in what they regard as “the real world”.Nonetheless, things may be improving. The authors of the new review, led by Kathryn Oliver of Manchester University, have discovered there is more research available than ever before linking research, policy and practice in new ways. Validated interventions to treat specific conditions have been developed and knowledge about the pathways leading to particular outcomes is expanding. Even so, the reports analyzed in the review – published between 2000 and 2012 – mostly concern health. The reviewers looked specifically for information about the main “barriers” and “facilitators” that make it more, or less, likely that policy makers will take research evidence into account.They found that the most frequently reported stumbling blocks were poor research availability, a dearth of relevant studies and insufficient time among policy makers to consider the evidence properly. Weak managerial support, cost issues and policy makers’ unfamiliarity with research methods were also cited. Researchers and policy makers often had different ideas about what constituted “evidence” and whose views were worth listening to. Unplanned and informal contacts played a significant part in influencing policy. It was also apparent that policy makers’ receptiveness to research findings was diminished by vague or unbounded policy recommendations and by researchers’ reluctance to express their results in plain language. Improved dissemination methods and communication skills were among the most frequently reported examples of facilitators. So, too, was a strong relationship between researchers and policy makers, allowing for good access to evidence and active collaboration. Researchers and their work were valued more by policy makers when it was clear they were non-partisan and unbiased in their results. The chances of their findings being taken on board were also thought to improve where they demonstrated a good understanding of the policy process and current priorities.Another stumbling blockAll this is useful to know. But in reaching their conclusions the reviewers highlight a further stumbling block: namely that most of the studies they examined focus on people’s perceptions of factors affecting policy uptake, rather than any detailed observation of the policy making process itself. Indeed, a large minority of studies were based entirely on the views of researchers, not policy makers.More detailed evidence is obviously needed about the way various barriers and facilitators come into play in the use of research evidence when making policy. Why is it that policy makers, knowing there are barriers, do not do more to overcome them? What can be usefully done to make researchers aware of the many other factors that influence policy, not just evidence from research?The review provides a brush-cleaning exercise for those who want to create a better picture linking prevention science to policy making. The provision of effective prevention requires sound evidence indicating when, where and how to intervene. But to be truly influential, social researchers will to need pay more attention to policy implementation as well as development.As Oliver and her colleagues conclude: “To justify the continuing rhetoric about the importance of research use, and the ever increasing amount of research into the area, it is surely essential that we practice what we preach and generate evidence about the process and effectiveness of research use in policy.”*********Reference:Oliver, K., Innovar,S., Lorenc, T., Woodman, J. and Thomas, J. (2014) A systematic review of barriers to and facilitators of the use of evidence by policymakers. BMC Health Services Research, 14:2

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