Seeing how governments formulate decisions is a crucial component of their ability to claim democratic legitimacy. This includes being seen to draw on the knowledge and evidence produced by their civil service policy advisers. Yet much of the advice provided to governments is being increasingly withdrawn from public accessibility.
With governments likely to benefit from a status quo that normalises withdrawal of policy processes and rationales from public view, it is important to find alternative ways to illuminate how policy officials communicate their evidence and how that evidence is used in political contexts by governments to make decisions on our behalf.
In 2017–2018, a large school district in the U.S. was threatened by the state education agency with closure of 23 struggling elementary schools unless it could improve students’ performance on state-mandated assessments. The district’s Office of Elementary Curriculum and Development immediately tried to determine which reading resources (reading programmes, assessments, online tools, book collections, and professional development supports) were available at each school and to assess their effectiveness at improving student reading proficiency. To help with this evaluation task, our research-practice team explored various options for quickly providing suitable evidence on the effectiveness of each of 23 reading resources used at one or more of these schools. We expected to find reasonable consistency across multiple sources of information that we could use to help guide the district’s actions. The results were not quite as expected.
Drew Gitomer, Kevin Crouse, Nikki Dreste and Meged Eisenberg
We recently announced in the William T. Grant Foundation Digest the launch of the Use of Research Evidence (URE) Methods Repository, a new, open resource in development that focuses on the use of research evidence. The Repository is housed in a Collection on the Open Science Framework (OSF), and we welcome contributions in which detailed research methods are catalogued in an open-access format. One of our principal goals in designing this resource is to serve and connect the broad community of stakeholders that engage with and around topics focusing on the Use of Research Evidence (URE). Accordingly, we have designed the Repository so that it can be used in multiple ways that are tailored to the different interests and goals that different potential users have.
As we were designing the Repository, we envisioned an open-access resource for the broad community of URE participants. This includes providing a space for the URE research community to share and display a fuller description of their methodological approaches than typically appear in final publications and making those approaches accessible to those who are interested in discovering or reviewing research methods that are used in URE studies. We saw value in ensuring that practitioners, funders, and others outside of academic research could access all of the resources without needing a paid subscription or institutional account. We also want to engage researchers and graduate students in the social sciences who have not done research in URE but are interested in learning more about the questions and spaces they address.
In this blog post, we describe the most common intended use applications of the URE Methods Repository.
Pre-pandemic, the UK government estimated that work loss due to ill-health costed around £100bn per year. This problem places an unsustainable burden on health, employment and welfare systems, and is a major cause of socioeconomic disadvantage and inequality. The potential for healthcare to reduce this burden has been reflected in numerous UK policy initiatives and clinical guidance ever since 2008, when Dame Carol Black published her seminal report Working for a Healthier Tomorrow.
However, over a decade later, avoidable work disability remains a leading public health concern. One key concept – healthcare professionals discussing work with their patients during routine consultations – has remained elusive in practice. There are clearly significant obstacles to translating ‘work-focused healthcare’ policy into practice. Our Evidence & Policy article sheds light on what those obstacles are and how they may be addressed. It raises wider concerns about how scientific evidence is used and understood by policymakers, making a novel contribution to the expanding literature which suggests that researcher-policy-practice relationships are key factors in mobilising the evidence.
Evidence-based policy is key to reducing public health problems worldwide. The late 2000s witnessed a breakthrough in maternal healthcare delivery in Southern Africa by way of a policy initiative that allowed the use of magnesium sulphate to prevent pregnancy induced hypertension-related deaths among pregnant women. Pregnancy induced hypertension was identified as the single most important cause of death among pregnant women in the Africa sub-region. This feat was attained through the concerted efforts of a team of international researchers, local researchers, health practitioners (academic obstetricians) and policymakers from Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa who harnessed their individual knowledge into a policy to address this long existing health scare.
In our review, we found that the intervention by EVIPNet (in making giant strides in the fight against malaria in Africa) improved the capacities of knowledge among institutions on the continent through publication of policy briefs and peer-reviewed articles – resulting in an increment in Africa’s share in global research. This effort, apart from creating awareness about the health challenges on the continent, also served as a springboard to attract researchers, policymakers and other stakeholders as a community of actors championing knowledge translation in Africa.
Evidence & Policy is the first peer-reviewed journal dedicated to a comprehensive and critical assessment of the relationship between researchers and the evidence they produce and the concerns of policymakers and practitioners.
International in scope and interdisciplinary in focus, it addresses the needs of those who develop public policies, provide public services, or provide the research base for evaluation and development across a wide range of social and public policy issues (e.g. criminal justice, employment and welfare, education, environmental protection, finance, health, housing, international development, social care, and transport), and those who are working to connect the two (such as knowledge brokers).
Zachary Neal, Incoming Co-Editor in Chief of Evidence & Policy, said:
“Mark Pearson and Katherine Smith have done amazing work to establish Evidence & Policy as a leading outlet for research on knowledge translation. I am excited to build on their hard work and look forward to incorporating open science practices that help make this research transparent and available to everyone.”
Caroline Oliver, Incoming Co-Editor in Chief of Evidence & Policy, said:
“It feels an honour to take on the role as Co Editor in Chief with Zak, and we look forward to continuing the great work that Katherine and Mark have done with Evidence & Policy over recent years. In this position, I am looking forward to maintaining the high quality of publications in the journal, as well as encouraging a diversification of articles published in terms of geographic focus, topics, disciplines and theoretical underpinnings, to further that aim.”
We join Professor Neal and Professor Oliver in thanking Co-Editors Professor Katherine Smith, University of Strathclyde, UK and Dr Mark Pearson, Hull York Medical School, UK for their dedication, their excellent stewardship of the journal and the many achievements that have marked their term as Editors in Chief.
There is widespread agreement, among public policy scholars, that research evidence does not translate readily into policy practice, and that more needs to be done to ‘bridge the gap’ between policy research and policy practice. But why is it so difficult to achieve evidence-based policy in practice?
An important reason for this mismatch is that there are typically different sources of knowledge and evidence, and because stakeholders will often disagree which of these sources of evidence should inform policy. Such disagreements are common when dealing with complex ‘wicked’ policy problems.
As researchers have shown, policy researchers and policy workers often feel as though they live and work in different worlds. Policy researchers are often disappointed their research finding are being ignored, while policy workers tend to complain that policy research lacks practical relevance.
What would you be willing to sacrifice to reduce health inequalities? What is the most you would be willing to give up for the introduction of a basic income? How does this compare to what you would trade off for an increase in Universal Credit? Does your support depend on the income and health implications of these policies? And on your own income and/or health status? At present, we do not know the answer to these questions. Arguably, providing answers could help create the conditions to improve current policies and/or introduce more radical policies for tackling health inequalities.
There is a health divide in the UK. Individuals who are poorer die earlier and have worse health than those who are better off. We have known this for many years. Yet despite health inequalities being a focus of research and policy, health gaps continue to widen. To tackle socio-economic inequalities in health we need macro policies that will change the socio-economic, cultural and environmental conditions of people’s lives. These policies could include, but are certainly not limited to, taking action to reduce homelessness, increasing the availability and accessibility of good quality and affordable social housing, introducing a basic income that supports a minimum income standard and implementing a more progressive taxation system. However, it is difficult to create the political conditions necessary to implement these types of policy. One form of evidence which could help facilitate policy change is knowledge of a specific type of public value – economic value – for non-health policies and their associated (non-)health outcomes. This evidence is currently missing from decision-making processes.
Research evidence can help policymakers make decisions about society’s biggest challenges such as combating climate change, responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and seeking racial justice. However, exchanges between policymakers and researchers are complex and often require the help of individuals and organisations serving in broker, intermediary or boundary spanner roles.
Although brokers, intermediaries and boundary spanners are recognised across the environment, health and education sectors, there have been limited opportunities to explore how literature across sectors characterises what these individuals and organisations do, what skills they need and what outcomes they produce. Therefore, in a recently published Evidence & Policy article, we reviewed 185 conceptual and review papers across the environment, health and education sectors with the goal of understanding the strategies, skills and expected outcomes of brokers, intermediaries and boundary spanners.
Every day in government ministries, decisions are being made that shape the world. Literally, not figuratively. Decisions are made that can move mountains, make holes in the ground, cause buildings to appear, decide where other things can land, park or moor. This shaping involves a profession of highly trained and skilled individuals known commonly as ‘engineers’. Most engineers work in the private sector but a small fraction work in government, providing advice to policy officials and ministers. In the UK, engineers in government are a hidden species, commonly clustered into the STEM acronym. Science and engineering are often used interchangeably, which may explain why there is a body of research on science advice but nothing explicitly on engineering advice.
In addition to the common failure to distinguish between scientists and engineers in policy is the way in which science advice is commonly understood: as a regulatory function that helps monitor the presence of toxic elements in the environment, and work out what to do about them. The work of Jasanoff in her book The Fifth Branch is an example of this, and it also tends to exemplify the ‘at a distance’ approach of the majority of science advice research. Engineers aren’t normally involved in this kind of ‘regulatory science’ – in the UK at least they are involved in implementation (though of course engineering, if nothing else, is a discipline of standards, as Yates & Murphy show). Instead, discovering this new evidence for policy species took a more ethnographic moment to reveal it.