Building relationships across research and policy sectors: what's being tried?

The social nature of making and using evidence highlights the importance of what we know about how to build cross-sector relationships.

30 . 07 . 2020

Knowledge sharing is a social process. Though this is well known to social scientists, only recently has the evidence community as a whole come to recognise that attempts by academia to influence policy are deeply complex, involving multiple relationships, histories and actors. Similarly it has become clear that when and how research is used in decision-making is dependent and variable.

These insights form the core of a relational model for thinking about how research evidence is used in decision-making. In their writing on the three generations of thinking about evidence, Best & Holmes provide a way for those interested in research use to reflect on their strategies and tools. The relational model requires a focus on how knowledge is made by and shared among diverse stakeholders, what collaboration should look like, and how to create partnerships underpinned by common interest.

Investments in relationships

Recent years have seen investment in initiatives to build relationships across research and policy. Some focus on fostering new skills and capacities in the communities producing and using research, often by encouraging co-learning. Training offers – like those developed by the Cambridge Centre for Science and Policy, for example – cut both ways: bringing policymakers closer to the world of research, and supporting researchers to grow their expertise about working with policy stakeholders.

Cross-sector networks are another way in which organisations and individuals try to build relationships characterised by trust and mutualism. In the UK, attempts are now being made to create more formalised partnerships across sectors. These efforts follow, for example, initiatives in the US, where researchers and educators have been brought together in long-term research-practice partnerships. Or Australia and Canada, where climate scientists, decision-makers and local communities are working together on research co-design.

What's been learnt?

Collectively, these initiatives are exploring how we can move beyond ‘push' approaches to research use - where academics set the agenda. Much of this work is dispersed across very different subject areas and policy domains. At Transforming Evidence we are working to identify the practices that unpin these efforts to improve collaboration and exchange. Learning so far has highlighted that intensive research collaborations can be risky and expensive undertakings, but that they are often deeply valued by research and policy stakeholders. Sustaining new networks over the long-term is hard, and funding often insecure, but there can be real rewards for practice. There are multiple ways to share knowledge and collaborate - can the evidence community root these in more meaningful conversations about how we do and share research for society?

Anna Numa Hopkins is a Senior Researcher with the Transforming Evidence collaboration

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