The science of using research: why it starts with the policymaker

Piles of evidence don’t make any difference if they’re not being used to develop policy. Shutterstock

Governments all over the world invest large sums of public money into producing knowledge that helps them understand their countries’ complex socioeconomic issues. This knowledge, in the form of research, can be used to formulate potential solutions through public policies and programmes.

But it’s not enough just to produce research. It must also be considered and drawn from when policies are being created. However, a range of barriers might prevent policymakers from accessing and using evidence in their work. To understand the use of evidence, then, it’s important to understand the policymaker. Who is she? What are her incentives and biases? What is her professional and institutional context?

This is important for two reasons. The first is that it’s wasteful for governments to fund research – with taxpayers’ money – that’s just going to gather dust. The second is that governments may implement programmes and policies that have no impact or are actually detrimental to the very people they’re supposed to help. This isn’t unprecedented: a programme run in the US to scare juvenile delinquents “straight” was implemented even though researchers had shown that it had, on average, previously caused more harm than merely leaving these young people be.

A new global systematic review conducted by the Evidence for Policy and Practice Information and Co-ordinating Centre has shed some light on the important issue of getting more scientific about the practice and study of research use. Our report, “Science of using science: researching the use of research evidence in decision-making”, combined insights from 36 existing systemic reviews that reported on 91 different research-use interventions. It identifies the most effective strategies for increasing and strengthening how research is used to build public policy.

What the review found

A golden thread throughout the review findings is the importance of getting serious about approaching research use from a policymaker’s perspective. For example, we found that programmes supporting practical research-use skills, such as appraising the quality of a study, were effective. Likewise, targeting and tailoring the communication of research findings to policymakers’ preferences yielded positive results. This could be achieved by framing research findings according to policymakers’ mode of decision-making – such as being risk or loss averse.

We also found that policymakers place an opportunity cost on every interaction. They’ll forgo and sacrifice other commitments or work to engage with researchers. If those interactions don’t come with tangible benefits, the policymaker is unlikely to bother making time for researchers again.

Each policymaker will have her own networks of people with whom she engages and shares information. So if researchers engage with the same group of policymakers again and again, there is a risk that the research they share never spreads through the system. Researchers need to target policymakers who can act as bridges between, for instance, different government departments. This creates more effective networks through which evidence can flow.

Lastly, the review identified how important it is to facilitate evidence use through organisational processes. This could involve supervising how the evidence is used and giving policymakers the tools they need to apply evidence effectively.

The South African context

We were particularly interested in how these findings can be applied in South Africa, as this is where we conduct our work through the Africa Evidence Network.

South Africa is one of only a handful of countries that has created government structures that institutionalise the use of research evidence in policymaking. Government policy is organised according to a framework of 14 key outcomes that all departments must work towards. A range of evidence is used to assess government’s progress and the effects of its policies and programmes on contributing to the national key outcomes.

South Africa is in a rare position: there’s a high-level demand for evidence-informed decision-making. The country’s cabinet meetings often discuss impact evaluation reports. Organisational structures and processes are being put in place to nurture this demand.

This approach is yielding results. A number of national policies have already been systematically informed by the best available research evidence. These include the child support grant and the youth wage subsidy.

But, as a survey has shown, the use of evidence is still far from common decision-making practice. Government demand for evidence also relies on a research supply of policy-relevant evidence, which can be a challenge at times. There is still a lot of work to be done. Our review offers some ideas and suggestions that South Africa and other countries could adopt.

Effective strategies

It is crucial to invest in policymakers’ skills to use evidence. If they have the capacity and tools they need, there’s a greater chance they’ll use evidence. In South Africa, a number of different organisations and bodies offer capacity building around research use. But their activities are not homogeneous.

A more systematic approach to capacity building would mean that public servants and policymakers are exposed to similar support, particularly at provincial government level.

Also, if policymaking is to be more frequently informed by scientific evidence, researchers need to understand policymaking. Sadly most researchers don’t often leave their natural habitat at universities to engage and collaborate directly with policymakers. Researchers and policymakers could establish mentoring relationships – an effective strategy for exchanging knowledge.

One thing lies at the heart of all these suggestions: the use of evidence as a salient feature in decision- and policymaking.

Engagement and dialogue

Direct engagement between researchers and policymakers is crucial. There are growing opportunities for this, such as at the 2016 Africa Evidence Network conference. The conference will focus on three themes: engage, understand and impact. These also feature in the discussion around a new landmark report, “Using evidence to reflect on South Africa’s 20 years of democracy”, which was published in March 2016.

This and similar initiatives mean that the time is ripe for South Africa’s research-use community to interrogate how effective its strategies are in supporting evidence-informed decision-making. It’s time to become more scientific about the use of research evidence.

Authors’ note: The Science of Using Science project was led by the Alliance for Useful Evidence, with generous funding and support from the Wellcome Trust and the What Works Centre for Wellbeing. The research was undertaken by Laurenz Langer, Janice Tripney and David Gough of the EPPI-Centre, Social Science Research Unit, UCL Institute of Education, University College London.