Evidence-based practice in social work is often critiqued for constraining practices by emphasising rigid methods and standardised interventions that exclude professional and clients’ experiences. Our research within disability care found rather it catalysed a dynamic interplay between local and external knowledge, as explained in our recently published Evidence & Policy article.
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.
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.
In our Evidence and Policy article, ‘Public-academic partnerships to foster use of research evidence in improving youth outcomes: findings from document analysis’, we analysed documents from 23 US PAPs aiming to improve mental health and promote well-being of youth aged 12–25 years. We found that the PAPs had diverse partnership goals including implementation and dissemination of research/evaluation evidence, information sharing, and prioritising and streamlining research processes. PAPs sustained longer than 10 years had more focused goals while PAPs 10 years or newer were engaged in more diverse goals. The majority of PAPs used journal articles, presentations and multimedia as dissemination strategies. Several PAPs had a large volume of material available online while others had very little.
Non-profit community anchor organisations in England typically provide a range of support to local people, including wellbeing support, advocacy, social activities, and training and employment advice. This array of services takes a wider perspective on the determinants of health than the approach taken within the National Health Service (NHS), which generally focuses on mental and physical ill health.
Despite the different approaches, the funding for community anchor organisations is often dependent on the impact they have on health outcomes. Is this a good basis for judging the value of holistic support?
They discuss the problems with current representations of disability, recent examples of policy that has failed disabled people and the changes that could be made so people with disabilities can be better supported and allowed to participate in policy making.