Shaping real change at the boundaries of research and policy means transforming systems

We can draw on the social sciences to understand why systems lack openness to generating or mobilising different types of knowledge and evidence

30 . 07 . 2020

Two recent blogs for Transforming Evidence have outlined how dominant approaches to improving engagement between research and policymaking have changed over time. Drawing on ideas proposed by Best & Holmes, they explored how initial attempts to ‘push’ research evidence out from the university have recently given way to academics, funders, and policymakers working together and with other stakeholders in new ways. For an international group of funders, researchers and professionals, improving how a more equitable knowledge base is shared and used is a stepping stone to more equitable policy. 

So a final generation of thinking, according to Best & Holmes, is preoccupied with transforming systems. It involves asking how to create change in the wider worlds of research and policy; and more substantially, what that change should look like.

Systems are talked about in contrasting ways. Penelope Hawe has theorized that complex systems are characterised by an ‘unpredictability of effects’. That is, that multiple causal relationships confound simplistic attempts to intervene to improve (in this case) health outcomes. These ideas form part of emerging evidence paradigms in health – and in policy and practice more widely have been adapted to describe different ways of taking and improving action within government and services.

For those focused on research use, the need to attend to systems is also a product of the barriers to improving how policymakers use evidence. ‘Systems-informed’ approaches aim to tackle these barriers at source – by changing cultures, infrastructure and leadership strategy. A project mapping the research-policy engagement landscape has collected the small number of examples of this work that exists. 

New infrastructure investments, such as the UK Government’s Areas of Research Interest, aim to improve the integration of research into longer-term Departmental policy formulation. New incentives and rewards try to embed change in research cultures or recognise the efforts of policy professionals – the ESRC’s Celebrating Impact Prize is a high-profile example. Advocacy for the ‘better use of evidence’ has gained traction in the UK and US particularly.

Scholarship on evidence and policy systems should provide a backdrop to help contextualise and investigate these interventions in the public role of research. But overwhelmingly, discussions about ‘evidence systems’ are poorly connected to the rich knowledge we have about the systems in question. Where they fail to draw on the disciplines and sub-disciplines that shed light on policy, science and knowledge production, these conversations about change are impoverished – and detached from the evolving research-government-industry relations.

So which systems are in question here, and what is at stake? A central aim of Transforming Evidence is to build bridges between these disciplines and better connect bodies of knowledge to how funders are making investment decisions. Considering how to be ‘more systems-informed’, three ideas come to mind.

Language matters

Kathryn Oliver has written about the tendency of those coming to this field to synecdoche – that is, to represent the part of this picture that’s visible from their vantage point as the whole. She describes how the renaming of this research field (think meta-science, research on research, science of science, etc) signals waste, in the sense that they all try to re-create what we already know. But it also risks a selective amnesia that omits fundamental lessons learnt in the interrogation of academic knowledge. These lessons are, for many people in the worlds of European academia and policy, uncomfortable ones. Research and policy systems are constituted through social and economic histories that are alive in language and practice today – these systems define who gets to produce knowledge, what counts as ‘useful’ evidence for policy, as Fabienne Doucet points out, and how 'research impact' is talked about and done.

Attending to ends

So, clarifying what is meant by ‘systems’ is one challenge. Another is then to more effectively put these concepts into action, in pursuit of concrete aims. In a recent chapter, Deborah Ghate and Rick Hood have shown that a systems-informed approach can help us think through how a mixed economy of institutions and actors, and multiple social, political and policy contexts, influences how practice is shaped and how research is used. Systems-informed work is also contributing to how research involves stakeholders in knowledge creation, as well as highlighting how global North-South relations constitute research-to-policy environments. It’s only by attending to ends, as well as means, that the evidence community will be able to identify and support strategies that can more reflexively engage with how knowledge production and decision-making contexts are (re)produced.

How close is close enough?

Some of the most inspiring work on research and its role in public life is happening abroad – in the US, philanthropic funders the William T Grant Foundation have developed research-practice partnerships that bring researchers and organisations together throughout the lifecycle of making and using knowledge. These are partnerships founded on principles: a focus on solving local problems, mutualism, and long-term commitment to collaboration. Whether these programmes are possible or desirable within policy contexts is unclear – the model adopted by, for example, the UK’s Policy Research Units is more pragmatic, leaving much of the traditional academic research process untouched.

Shaping change at the intersection of research and policy means crossing and re-marking their boundaries in new ways. For researchers and other knowledge producers, there is a wealth of experience and literature to draw on to support efforts to engage with or influence policy. One message we might take from the critical social sciences, in particular, is the need to ownership for how research both describes and creates the systems we live in.

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

Featured photo by hikersbay from Pixabay.

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