Escaping the ivory tower

Better connecting research with policy-making

Rod Keenan

Government and governance, Science and technology | Australia, The World

6 February 2017

Science and research can shape better public policy outcomes. Rod Keenan outlines the models that most successfully bridge the divide between researchers and decision-makers.

Evidence-based public policy has been a long-standing foundation of good government, with science and reason being considered the basis for sound ‘evidence’. However, providing effective linkages between the two arenas has proved to be a major challenge for both the science and policy communities.

The relationship between these communities is often characterised by misunderstanding and mistrust. University of Melbourne health and sustainability researcher, John Wiseman, suggested that decision-makers often dismiss researchers as irrelevant ivory tower academics hopelessly out of touch with the ‘real world’ expectations and requirements of policymakers. Researchers often berate public servants as unreflective, bureaucratic pragmatists with little understanding of the knowledge really needed to fully address complex, wicked policy problems.

At a practical level, policymakers may lack awareness of the existence or relevance of research or, given their time commitments, have limited capacity to absorb and use research in their decisions. Researchers often have little exposure to policy processes, limited understanding of how their research might be relevant and lack the training and capacity to present research findings in a way that is useful to policy decisions.

There are also strong underlying differences in values and motivations between the two groups. Scientists are open to multiple viewpoints, with a focus on finding an objective truth or understanding how a decision might impact on the long-term state of the environmental system in question. They prioritise rationality in decision-making.

Policymakers often focus more on an immediate solution to a problem. They are more concerned about the attitudes and perceptions of the public or key interest groups towards an issue, and the rationality of any decision is less important. They will generally have a shorter time horizon and are less concerned about longer-term or more uncertain impacts. Once a policy direction has been set, multiple alternative viewpoints are not considered helpful.

More on this: Are our universities failing us? Academia and policymakers in a post-truth world

Our recent study of the way senior environment ministers and bureaucrats in Canada and Australia used scientific knowledge highlighted the importance of social factors such as communication, trust and collaboration in providing for the successful of adoption science in policy decisions. Knowledge integration was also raised as a major challenge, with decision-makers seeking more coordination among agencies, and interdisciplinary and socially robust analysis to foster innovation in policy development and ensure the relevance of knowledge to decision-making.

So what arrangements can be used to facilitate improved connections and interactions between researchers and policymakers?

Commonly used approaches around the world include employing internal science experts (such as ‘chief scientists’), the co-location of researchers and policy staff, the formation of ongoing or temporary expert advisory panels or taskforces, the use of contracted consultants or researchers, involving policymakers in setting the research agenda and tailoring research outputs to meet policy needs.

In recent interviews with policymakers and researchers involved with adaptation to climate change in the UK, I found that many of these processes can work, but all had considerable challenges. Internal science experts (even chief scientists) can be side-lined within departments and their advice or input can have limited impact. The co-location of staff provides improved understanding of respective operating environments, but unless processes are set up for researcher input, they may have little direct involvement in policy decisions. Advisory panels can be ignored, or sometimes ‘co-opted’ to provide support for a pre-existing decision, rather than being used to generate, explore and test alternative policy options. Their success depends on leadership by people who are well-connected and respected and can bring advice into the upper echelons of government. Policymakers often do not have a significantly long-term view, or understanding of the research process, to contribute to a research agenda. Tailoring research outputs to meet policy needs requires that the researchers fully understand the decision space in which the policymakers are operating.

Building better working relationships between research and policy therefore requires a stronger common understanding of the respective environments and the creation of opportunities for informal communication to build trust and mutual respect. Working together to co-design, cooperate and co-produce research generally has the greatest success.

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How can government, universities and other research organisations facilitate this collaboration? One option is to form ‘boundary organisations’. An example is the Victorian Centre for Climate Change Adaptation Research which I led between 2009 and 2014. The Centre was established as a partnership between Victorian universities and the state government to improve the decision-making capacity on climate change impacts and adaptation options in government. We established processes for the co-design and implementation of research and, towards the end of this period, we undertook research to analyse and reflect on the key elements for successful co-production. These can be divided into three stages: facilitation, interaction and dissemination.

Facilitation of the relationship required high-level organisational and individual staff time commitment. Multiple stakeholders and potential users in government need to be involved in framing the research and considering how it might be applied.

Effective ongoing interaction is required to drive collaboration and coproduction. This requires leadership from the university to support researchers engaging with policy staff (as these relationships were not always easy); individuals with enthusiasm, commitment and good interpersonal skills; time for regular face-to-face meetings and discussion; and anticipating and managing the inevitable personnel changes in policy organisations.

Dissemination was best achieved through the co-production of research products tailored to the specific uses and users, and to the policy context. The most useful outputs were shorter, with clear recommendations customised to the policy setting. Academic journal publications were generally of little value for decision-making, although they can add to the credibility of research. Sometimes conversations and short briefing sessions were the most effective.

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Timing is critical. It is important to deliver research early in the policy process to provide a basis for forming policy options. It is better to present half-formed material early than the perfect output three months too late.

Building a coalition of support for the research was also important. This can be achieved by presenting results in professional meetings, publishing in professional publications and recruiting influential policy or practice champions to speak to the value and utility of the research.

Successful interaction requires government leaders to ‘open-up’ organisational cultures, to take risks in working with scientists to explore new ideas, experiment and then reflect on the outcomes. Universities and other research organisations need to provide opportunities for researchers to experience policy environments and provide training in policy processes.

Universities need to give clear acknowledgement and rewards to the value of researchers engaging with policy. Funding bodies need to recognise that this mode of research involves different activities, different time frames, and results in very different outputs. Boundary organisations can play an important role in facilitating these relationships, but they require leadership and long-term commitment in both research and policy organisations and flexibility to adapt to changing environmental and social conditions and changing policy priorities.

Linking science and policy needs to be based on mutual understanding, respect and continuing communication. The stakes here are high. The consequences of poorly informed policy can be felt for decades.  Poorly designed and executed interaction can affect the willingness of policymakers and researchers to engage long into their careers. If we get the relationship right, we can clearly benefit from better-informed decisions and the value of research for policymakers and the wider society will be more clearly understood.

Rod Keenan will be one of the speakers at the upcoming Policy Forum event, Bridging science, economics and policy silos. Find out more and register here: https://crawford.anu.edu.au/news-events/events/8711/bridging-science-economics-and-policy-silos

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One Response

  1. Andrea Grant says:

    Thanks for sharing this perspective Rod. For me your most critical take away from this is the comment:
    “Timing is critical. It is important to deliver research early in the policy process to provide a basis for forming policy options. It is better to present half-formed material early than the perfect output three months too late.”
    If we can’t get used to sharing partly formed ideas then we have little hope of thinking critically and reflexively about how science and policy interact. Once an idea is ‘perfected’ it becomes more difficult to change.
    I felt privileged to play a small part in the discussions of the VCCCAR and was very sorry to hear that this venture had ended. I’m now working in New Zealand in a similar co-development platform constituted by the National Science Challenges. I think these approaches to handling complex multifaceted problems can only benefit from the extra effort required in sharing and reporting progress but it does require a culture change in management practice and that needs a more active learning approach to appreciate what is working, why and when.

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