The ‘evidence revolution’ and the call for more interaction between academics and government policy-makers
The ‘evidence revolution’ to make better use of research in policy has taken root in many countries and policy contexts around the world. In many cases, it has become the publicly expressed expectation, not the exception. For example, in the United Kingdom, this expectation was enshrined nearly two decades ago in government White Papers such as Modernising Government and Professional Policymaking for the Twenty First Century [1, 2]. Such expectations align with the aspirations of ‘modern’ governments such as transparency, accountability and a less ideologically driven approach to improving public service provision [3,4,5]. An evidence-based policy (EBP) discourse also serves to legitimize policy-making through, at a minimum, the appearance of objectivity afforded by a government’s commitment to the use of scientific knowledge [5, 6]. Yet, it is well known that direct use of research evidence in policy is difficult to assess, research evidence as a form a knowledge must compete with many other ways of knowing and research evidence is one among many contributors to policy . Recognition that a pure form of EBP is unlikely to be achievable (or even necessarily desirable) has resulted in a shift of position among most advocates of the better use of evidence towards the more modest ambition of ‘evidence-informed’ policy-making (EIP) [8,9,10].
The relationship between research evidence and policy has been extensively studied in the literature on knowledge mobilization, translation and exchange activities [11,12,13,14,15,16]. Such work has moved from the more normative to the more empirical to understand how different models of interaction between academics and policymakers aid in improving the role of research for policy, offering more collaborative and interactive solutions such as co-production and knowledge brokering . A common theme across this literature is the idea that improving the relationship between academics and policymakers or practitioners will lead to both production of more relevant research and greater opportunities for research evidence to be used in decision-making. Such collaborative interactions may take place with academics situated outside government, working on government-commissioned research activities, or inside government where academics may hold formal positions as advisors or, for varying periods of time, become civil servants.
Glied, Wittenberg and Israeli offer their perspective on the role of research evidence and academics in government in their article Research in Government and Academia . Situating their perspective in the larger shifts of governments’ policy practices, their collective experience from the United States, England and Israel of working in both academia and policy-making provides insight into the role of academics in government as one mechanism to foster more evidence-informed policy. As they traverse the interaction between health policy research and government, Glied and colleagues offer informed perspectives on barriers and drivers for research use in government, how government agendas shape their desires for, and consequently the production of, specific types of research-based knowledge, and mechanisms for considering how to improve the interaction between research and policy by situating academics in formal governmental roles .
As they set out how academics in government can serve a multiplicity of different roles, one of the most intriguing and perhaps provocative points is their reflection on the need to reconsider the role of academics in government from carriers or conduits of scientific knowledge and skills to that of active shaper of knowledge and evidence-informed practices for policy. Glied and colleagues contend that academics are able to use their training and expertise within government to bring research evidence to the fore of policy decisions building on their unique understanding of research and, over time, their appreciation of policy-making environments and processes. They raise the question of what the appropriate role of academics in the research and policy relationship is, leaning toward academics in government serving to inform and improve policy-making by facilitating a closer engagement and accessible dissemination of relevant concepts to decision makers and injecting research evidence into more aspects of policy-making. In so doing they raise the question of whether academics should apply their conceptual ‘filters’ and shape research-based knowledge so that it is more usable in situ. Their point is less about changing the role of the academic from dispassionate producer of evidence to positioned advocate and more about appreciating the unique skillsets academics could utilize to assist governments by seeking out, making sense of, and perhaps using research evidence in ways more conducive to policy environments. In so doing, academics in government could, through a variety of activities, bring knowledge from research and related expertise closer to the site of policy decisions so that it may have a greater chance of informing policy .
While this way of considering the role of academics in government is useful, Glied and colleagues’ arguments on the interaction between research and policy could be strengthened with further considerations. First, are there characteristics of academics inclined to enter into health policy roles in government that are distinctive compared to other social policy sectors (e.g., nature or type of disciplinary training) and do any differences have an influence on the way in which they contribute to policy-making? Next, much of the work to date on research and policy interactions provides solutions that assume government is monolithic, offering up models of collaboration intended to fit all contexts. Is EIP differentially operationalized across government departments and policy sectors (i.e. to what extent are Glied et al.’s experiences specific to health policy-making)? Finally, in what ways would a contextualized learning of relationships between research evidence generation, research use and its impact on practice inform their analyses?