Four practical steps to increase knowledge exchange between researchers and policymakers

Peter van der Graaf

Keen to have impact with your research but getting lost in all the knowledge exchange frameworks and models that are out there? Based on ten years’ experience working in translational public health for Fuse – The Centre for Translational Research in Public Health, a UK Clinical Research Centre collaboration across five universities in North East England, we identified four practical steps to develop collaborative research and achieve meaningful change in policy and practice.

The challenges of using research to inform policy and practice are well documented, including in public health where the evidence base for interventions or programmes is patchy or contested. In response to these challenges, an abundance of models and frameworks have been developed in recent years that try to define the knowledge exchange process (how research evidence can be used, in combination with other types of knowledge, to change policy and practice). Practitioners and researchers venturing into the field of knowledge exchange are bewildered by the options available, which don’t go beyond the conceptual level and fail to describe in practical terms what research translation on the ground looks like.

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The ambiguous nature of today’s behavioural government

Sarah Ball and Joram Feitsma

One of the major trends within the contemporary policy scene is ‘the use of behavioural insights (BI)’ to improve policymaking. All around the world, from Qatar to England and Japan, ‘Behavioural Insights Teams’ (or ‘BITs’), ‘Nudge advisers’ and ‘Chief Behavioural Officers’ now inhabit government, seeking to infuse it with state-of-the-art knowledge and methods from the behavioural sciences. The more specific signature traits of this BI agenda appear to be its focus on new behavioural economics, nudge techniques and Randomized Controlled Trials (RCTs). The COVID-19 crisis hasn’t hampered the behavioural momentum – quite the contrary: in the absence of a distributed vaccine, halting the spread of the coronavirus has very much been a behaviour change challenge, with BI being in great demand. The recent launch of dedicated ‘COVID-19 Teams’ and ‘Corona Behavioural Units’ within the UK’s and Dutch policy scene didn’t come as a surprise, and only confirmed that behavioural government is here to stay.

Intriguingly enough, though, one question about the new institutional praxis of ‘using BI’ remains not yet convincingly answered: What is it, really?

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Using evidence to achieve balance in public policymaking

R. Christopher Sheldrick, Justeen Hyde, Laurel K. Leslie and Thomas Mackie

Achieving balance is as important to progress as innovation and discovery. That’s one of the main conclusions we drew as we wrote our recent Evidence & Policy article, ‘The debate over rational decision making in evidence-based medicine: Implication for evidence-informed policy’.

Many of us place our hopes on innovative breakthroughs and groundbreaking discoveries, believing them to be our best bet to achieve a better world. And indeed, science has produced extraordinary breakthroughs. Vaccines radically reduced the risk of death from communicable diseases. Nitrogen-based fertilisers vastly increased the production of food. Computers completely transformed how modern humans learn, work and communicate. Surely, it would seem that investing in scientific breakthroughs is the key to progress. In this spirit, social scientists develop ‘evidence-based’ practices and policies and create hierarchies of evidence to determine ‘what works’. Many believe that if only science can produce enough evidence, discoveries will follow that can change the world – if only we can effectively compel others to accept them.

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Lone cowboys need a posse (and knowledge brokers need to work in teams!)

Lesley Wye

You know the story. A lone cowboy (unfortunately never a cowgirl) rides away into the sunset having saved the day. The same expectations are often placed on knowledge brokers who bring together different communities to share knowledge and catalyse change. The lone knowledge broker is supposed to be a hero. But speaking from decades of experience, you just can’t do it alone. A single person does not have all the necessary networks, knowledge, understanding, skills or credibility. To be effective, knowledge brokers need teams.

In a unique experiment from 2013–2016, we set up the Bristol Knowledge Mobilisation team. This was made up of four local healthcare policymakers (called ‘commissioners’) and three primary care academics; all of whom had part-time contracts with both the university and in healthcare commissioning. Our aim was for both communities to draw on each other’s knowledge to create ‘research-informed commissioning’ and ‘commissioning-informed research’ (i.e. research of genuine relevance).

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