University of St. Andrews
This paper draws upon data from the UK to argue that there is the potential for policy decisions to be better informed by research evidence than has hitherto been the case. This requires an investment in research, some rethinking of policy processes, and the development of mechanisms for bringing research and policy closer to one another.
There has been a significant increase in social research funding in the UK. This has been accompanied by exercises to: identify and plug key gaps in research knowledge; agree and develop appropriate research and evaluation methods; increase the use of systematic review methods to assist the process of knowledge synthesis and accumulation. All of these initiatives are aimed at improving the evidence base for policy and practice decisions.
The modernising government agenda in the UK argues that policy making should be based on the best available evidence and should include rational analysis of the evidence about what works. While this is a laudable aim, research evidence does not always, or even often, enter the policy process as part of a rational consideration of policy options. Instead research tends to become known and discussed within policy networks through a process of advocacy. This suggests that other aspects of the modernising government agenda which seek to open up policy processes, to make them more consultative and inclusive of stakeholder interests, are likely to be a more powerful vehicle for increasing research impact.
The implications for mechanisms to bridge the policy/ research divide are that many bridges are needed to link researchers with relevant policy and practice networks; government ministers and officials are not the only policy audience. Intermediary bodies (such as the Social Care Institute for Excellence in the UK) can play a key role in disseminating and promoting the uptake of research in both the policy and practice fields. Furthermore, there appears to be much to be gained from developing sustained interactions between researchers and research users through the development of partnership arrangements. Where partnerships operate throughout the research process, from the definition of the problem to the application of findings, they appear to increase both the quality of research and its impact.
Overall, it is easy to be cynical about the prospects for more evidence-based policy making: research rarely provides definitive answers to policy questions and rational decision making rarely lies at the heart of policy processes. However, this paper argues that neither definitive research evidence nor rational decision making are essential requirements for the development of more evidence-informed policy.