Opinion: 21 June 2017

Sax Institute knowledge brokers Professor Fiona Blyth and Dr Carmen Huckel Schneider explain why breaking down the walls between different academic disciplines could enhance our understanding of why research evidence does  − or doesn’t − make it into policy. This article is based on their recent paper in the journal, Public Health Research & Practice.

Knowledge brokers Fiona Blyth and Carmen Huckel Schneider

Knowledge brokers Fiona Blyth and Carmen Huckel Schneider say the route from evidence to policy is rarely linear

Researchers who are keen to see their findings impact on policy and practice are often told that better communication is the magic key to opening the door to the world of policy. The message is: if you can communicate your research well enough, policy makers will pay attention.

While communication is no doubt important, the route from evidence to policy and practice is rarely this linear. Working as a knowledge broker involves stepping into the shoes of both researchers and the policy makers, and it becomes crystal clear that the route from research to policy is a winding road with multiple twists, turns, red lights and intersections.

Policy making is a complex process, and we know that evidence is just one of many factors that come into play. Health disciplines have broadly embraced the concept of evidence informed policy making, and there is a growing body of literature that aims to better understand and enhance this process.

But if you look outside the health discipline, you discover that many other academic disciplines are also keen to take up this challenge of increasing the use of evidence in decision making, and each takes a quite different approach to that challenge.

By thinking outside the box and breaking down the barriers between disciplines, we can gain important insights into understanding the complexity of policy making, and where evidence fits in the process.

After all, the policy makers come from different disciplinary backgrounds – a fact that can in itself result in individuals interacting with evidence in different ways.

Gaining insights from different disciplines

In our research paper, we explore some of the important contributions to evidence informed policy making drawn from four different disciplines, each with its own history and breadth of methodologies and approaches.

While our exploration only touches on the surface of these disciplines, we pose some key questions that researchers might ask as a “gateway” into these different approaches to evidence informed policy making.

Information processing and behavioural sciences:  Understanding how individuals make decisions is an important facet of grasping how evidence is used in policy, and this discipline has a central focus on human cognition and relationships. It seeks to understand how and why people make the decisions they do.

The “gateway” question to this approach is: “In what ways might policy makers use evidence in their cognitive and group decision making processes?”

Theories of policy making and the political sciences:  This discipline is concerned with evidence about the policy process, looking at how and why certain policies come into being, and the role of institutions, individuals and other organisations or networks in setting agendas and arriving at solutions. The research seeks to make sense of a highly complex policy environment made up of actors, relationships, ideas and sets of core drivers.

We suggest a gateway question of: “How do we understand the way in which policy is being made?”

Critical theory and political philosophy:  This discipline is focused on who produces evidence, and how the evidence is interpreted and used. Key concepts are governance, democracy, representation, ethics and power, and it provides insights into evidence informed policy making from both practical and ethical standpoints.

The “gateway” question we put forward is: “What assumptions are being made about the value of evidence informed policy making, and at what point does that value reach its limit?”

Intervention research and implementation science: This discipline looks at the impact of strategies applied in real-world settings to induce some form of change, and has a strong focus on finding the right study design to gain plausible explanations of what works in what contexts. It is focused on the generation and use of reliable knowledge that can inform what policy approach to take, what programs to implement and how to execute them.

As a gateway to this approach, you could ask the question: “How can we know what is making a difference?”

Developing frameworks

We need frameworks of evidence informed policy making, combining insights from several of these approaches..

What’s clear is that if we really want to understand how to make evidence most useful for policy makers, we need to understand the drivers – why they need the evidence. The gateway questions posed here could open the door to a deeper, rounder understanding of those drivers.

If we start with the issue that needs to be addressed and bring together the relevant insights, tools and skills from all our disciplines to put on the table, we believe we may take a step closer to a true understanding of evidence informed policy making.

Dr Carmen Huckel Schneider is Director of the Master of Health Policy at the Menzies Centre for Health Policy, University of Sydney and an Adviser in the Sax Institute’s Knowledge Exchange division. Professor Fiona Blyth is Professor of Public Health and Pain Medicine at the University of Sydney and Senior Adviser in Knowledge Exchange division at the Sax Institute.

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