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What makes research useful? We still don’t know

Academics, funders and policymakers need to come together and—finally—work out how research can and should influence decision-making, say Kathryn Oliver and Annette Boaz.

The problem of how evidence could or should influence policy and practice has absorbed the attention of scholars, funders and practitioners for decades—without, it has to be said, much progress towards a shared understanding of what evidence is, or what its use looks like. 

Despite, or perhaps because of this, it remains a topic high on the agenda for many. The impact agenda has focused the attention of managers and employees in higher education towards how universities can better demonstrate the value of their work.

Research funders must show return on investment by government, and the public value of their own disbursements. And researchers themselves are also increasingly concerned with developing better ways of understanding how evidence interacts with policy and practice.

Over the past 30 years, the UK has seen huge investment in infrastructure to support the creation and use of research evidence in policymaking. 

Following the model of the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, eight further What Works Centres were established over a 15-year period. These organisations aim to conduct useful research, and to get it to decision-makers in easily digestible formats, such as clinical practice guidelines, blog posts or public events.

There are many other examples. But all have failed to generate high-quality, robust, theoretically informed evidence about the best ways to create meaningful evidence for decision-making.

Late last month, the Nuffield Foundation hosted a meeting on Transforming the Use of Research Evidence in Policy and Practice to explore why this might be.

Over two days we explored why the same questions are asked over and over again (such as “How useful are randomised controlled trials for policymakers? Should decision-makers use systematic review evidence? What are the barriers to knowledge uptake?”). We discussed the need to move away from this stagnated discussion, and to learn more effectively from each other about what evidence is, how it interacts with policy and practice, and the effects of different knowledge production and use interventions and systems.

We talked about the siloed nature of research, where each discipline—science and technology studies, public policy, health sciences, conservation, education and so on—has developed its own approaches and theories about evidence use. As we all publish in discipline-specific journals and attend our own conferences, there is almost no way for us to learn from one another, even though we are all working on the same problem. 

Our aim was to help researchers and funders think about how to come together, transforming how we think about the important issues in this field. There are some huge opportunities here, as shown by the presence of key funders such as the research councils and the Wellcome Trust.

Even so, while all funders have an inherent interest in the use of evidence, only the William T Grant foundation has yet invested significant funds to help build a community of researchers, and produce a body of empirical work on how evidence leads to change. 

UK Research and Innovation is currently developing its strategic thinking about how to invest in knowledge translation. Alongside the “doing” of impact, will it draw on the academic expertise that cuts across all seven research councils? There is immense global interest in, and a huge demand for better knowledge in this area. Let’s hope the moment has come for a step change in how we understand the use of research evidence. 

The next challenge will be how we act upon this knowledge to promote the better use of research evidence across policy domains. What might this look like? We believe there is a need for:

  • Leadership to promote the importance of using research evidence drawing on learning from across fields and disciplines
  • Mechanisms for International collaboration, whether that’s through funding, other infrastructure, or good old-fashioned goodwill
  • Enabling better learning across disciplines and countries—everything from how we measure impact in different countries to how we think about the role of evidence
  • Stakeholder engagement (to build ownership of the role and contribution of research evidence across the worlds of policy, practice and research, to build a sense that we have a shared endeavour and goodwill)
  • Convening (organising events, seminars, conferences and so on) providing a much-needed space for those in different fields and roles to talk and learn from each other
  • Leading a scientific programme cutting across disciplines and associated fields providing opportunities for rich conceptual and empirical work
  • Supporting the development of careers in this space through internships programmes (moving people between policy, practice and research environments), PhD fellowships, postdocs and awards to support conference attendance in different fields and countries

In immediate terms, the Transforming the Use of Research initiative will continue through its blog and Twitter, aiming to keep the conversation going. 

Kathryn Oliver is associate professor of sociology and public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Annette Boaz is professor in health care research at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London.