Three (good) reasons policymakers don’t make use of research evidence

I work for a university faculty whose strapline is ‘change the world’. So it is understandable that many of the researchers I collaborate with feel frustrated when policy makers don’t seem to be aware of the research evidence being produced by academic institutions.

I understand these frustrations and to be clear, I’m definitely in favour of the idea of more evidence-informed policymaking – indeed, that is what my team, the Policy Impact Unit, tries to achieve – but I also know that there are some good reasons why policy makers might not be able to make use of academic research. By understanding these reasons, we can design our engagements to overcome barriers and – hopefully – help to inform policymaking.

Aside from the obvious (research published behind a paywall and written using impenetrable jargon are unlikely to be read by anyone outside of the academic community), there are some other reasons to consider:

1. It’s the wrong time.

The ‘window of opportunity’, first conceived by political scientist John Kingdon, describes the moment when attention to a policy problem is high, potential solutions to the problem exist and there is a favourable political context for change.

It is during these windows that evidence is most likely to translate into impact. Evidence or recommendations that go against the grain of current ideologies, policy narratives or public opinion are likely to be met with resistance. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing –  in a democracy citizens expect their elected representatives to consider questions of ethics, morals, values, cultural norms and tradeoffs between different priorities, as well as research evidence, in their decision making.

2. I’m overwhelmed.  

Researchers are not the only people hoping to catch the attention of policymakers, they are bombarded by information from lots of places, including: in-house data, analysis and policy papers, reports from think tanks and consultancies, independent inquiries, campaigns and lobbying activities, reports from abroad, press reports and opinion polls. This ‘cognitive burden’ means that even with the best will in the world, policymakers simply aren’t able to take all of the information on a particular issue in to account.  Policy studies show that ‘mental shortcuts’ are used instead. By prioritising certain types of information and by relying on emotions and beliefs, policymakers find ways to focus on some pieces of evidence, and ignore others.

3. So what?

“The problem with academic research is that it might be very interesting…but it is often not very connected with the immediate political concerns of the day”

Member of staff, UK Parliament

This quote from a study into the use of evidence in the UK Parliament illustrates another common pitfall: it doesn’t matter how interesting the research might be, if it isn’t useful and relevant to whatever is currently on the policymaker’s plate, then it is unlikely to be picked up.

One reason that research evidence might not seem relevant from a policymaker’s perspective is that researchers are often tempted to want to ‘let the evidence speak for itself’. Unfortunately, this is not an effective strategy. The cognitive burden that policymakers face means that the implications of a piece of research for policymakers need to be spelled out very clearly in order to cut through the noise. Even worse, failing to make the message explicit means that there is a risk that policymakers might interpret the findings in a way that wasn’t intended.

What can we do?

Understanding the valid reasons that might prevent policymakers from utilizing research evidence is an important step to building an effective engagement strategy.

  1. First, consider the timing – is the window of opportunity open? If our evidence goes against the grain of current thinking, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it can’t be used. It just means that a different strategy for impact is required. By focusing first on building public support for the idea the political context can become more amenable to using the evidence. It might be possible then, to create a window of opportunity.
  2. The next step is to ease the cognitive burden that policymakers experience by making it easy to see how our evidence is relevant to the problem at hand. As Professor of Politics and Public Policy Paul Cairney has put it, “someone needs to speak up for a policy problem in a way that sparks the attention and concern of their audience”. This means thinking about why a policymaker ought to care about your evidence and presenting it in such a way as to make this obvious.
  3. Finally, we need to avoid the temptation to ‘let the evidence speak for itself’ and make sure that we are clear about the implications of the research findings.

It can be tempting to lay the blame for the research-policy gap at the feet of policymakers. But if we genuinely want our research to have a positive impact in the world, the onus is on us to take responsibility – and to do the work – of crafting our engagements so that they best meet the needs of a policy audience. Only then can we really stand a chance of changing the world.

Jenny Bird is Head of the Policy Impact Unit in UCL’s Faculty of Engineering Sciences. Her major interest is improving engagement at the policy-research interface in order to deliver more evidence-informed policymaking. Jenny has previously worked as a Senior Specialist in the House of Commons and as a Research Fellow for IPPR.

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