This blog post is based on the Evidence & Policy article, ‘What do advocates want from policy research? Evidence from elite surveys‘.
Jake Haselswerdt and Elizabeth Rigby
Efforts to advance evidence-based policy quickly recognise the need for ‘research brokers’ to take on the critical role of linking the separate worlds of research and policy. Research brokers work in a range of organisations to transform, translate and package complex research findings into ideas and formats that can be used by policymakers, as well as facilitate meetings and establish relationships between researchers and policymakers. These research brokers are typically engaged in shaping the policy agenda, identifying promising solutions and influencing policy decisions. Yet, we know little about who plays that role, nor how they think about the evidence-policy connection.
Of particular interest are advocates working in foundations, think tanks, associations, lobbying firms and non-profit organisations pursuing specific policy objectives. These advocates are well-positioned to serve as research brokers since they are actively involved in most policy formulation and implementation processes and policymakers often use them as an important source of information. Yet advocates are also participants in the policy process who work to advance their own positions and preferences (and those of employers/clients). Research dissemination is just one of many tools advocates use to advance their policy goals.
Our research published in Evidence & Policy, ‘What do advocates want from policy research? Evidence from elite surveys’, identifies real potential for advocates to play an effective research broker role by accurately disseminating policy-relevant evidence to decision-makers. We also identify significant limits to what should be expected from advocates in this process. Advocates seem to over-value research that supports their preferred policy position, as well as research framed in terms of long-standing policy debates. This limits their potential to disseminate the full range of evidence – overlooking contradictory and more novel research that could bring new data, information, frames and considerations into policy debates.
To understand the views of advocates on research-to-policy translation, we undertook two surveys of advocates working on economic policy at the state level (we specifically focus on the policy debate regarding the minimum wage). These people expressed optimism for the important (if limited) role for research in shaping policy outcomes in their state. Advocates in both liberal and conservative organisations expressed interest in using research, particularly to back up their policy positions.
These advocates tended to be quite research savvy: they valued objective and unbiased research, and most focused on the credibility of the source or organisation undertaking the research. Since advocates are understood to be pushing a particular point of view, it is likely helpful for them to point to research that comes from a source viewed as unbiased, such as a university, think tank or research organisation (see Figure 3 from our article below). For all the rhetoric about out-of-touch researchers, insiders still express a demand for the sort of knowledge that can only be provided by organisations with enough distance from the process to be credibly-objective. However, our results suggest that outward signals of credibility and objectivity are more important than the actual rigor of the study itself. This is an unsurprising result given that those in the policy world do not always have the training to assess the methodological soundness of cutting-edge research. It is possible, then, that shoddy or biased research that is packaged to seem credible and impartial can have as much influence through these channels as actual high-quality scholarship.
In the policy debate we studied (over the minimum wage), advocates were not particularly interested in novel research on unfamiliar outcomes. Instead, they preferred studies that stuck to the familiar framing of the issue that was dominant in their policy community. Their preference for familiar evidence to justify their existing policy positions may limit the degree to which policy advocates can serve as intermediary for novel results, hampering the ability of research to reframe policy debates. In this way, advocates may serve as research gatekeepers – blocking research dissemination by sorting and winnowing out findings that they deem as not relevant or informative for their policy priorities. This tendency may actually be more consequential than ideological bias, which is quite easy for policymakers to recognise and account for in weighing evidence provided by advocates.
Our findings suggest many advocates would be eager to partner with academics or other researchers viewed as objective and credible in order to strengthen their policy justifications. Yet they likely have blind spots, including failing to incorporate some research – particularly research introducing new dimensions, inter-relationships, or outcomes – into a long-standing policy debate. Researchers with more novel findings may be better off trying to connect with policymakers directly rather than relying on advocates.
Jake Haselswerdt is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science and Truman School of Public Affairs at the University of Missouri. His research focuses on the politics of public policy in the United States.
Elizabeth Rigby is an Associate Professor of Public Policy and Political Science at George Washington University. Her research and teaching examine the role of politics in the policymaking process.
You can read the original research in Evidence & Policy:
Haselswerdt, J and Rigby, E. (2020). What do advocates want from policy research? Evidence from elite surveys. Evidence & Policy, DOI: 10.1332/174426420X16000978959673.
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