NEWS13 April 2016

Access to evidence ‘not enough to encourage research use’

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UK — The Alliance for Useful Evidence has released the findings from its project The Science of Using Science, which explores evidence on what works in enabling the use of research by decision-makers. 

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The project, set up by the Alliance for Useful Evidence and funded by The Wellcome Trust and the What Works Centre for Wellbeing, was undertaken by a team at the EPPI-Centre at the Department of Social Science, UCL. It explored research literature for examples of interventions that successfully enabled knowledge exchange, in order to make recommendations on how best to encourage decision-makers’ use of research. 

A discussion paper highlighting the key findings and challenges revealed that giving decision-makers access to evidence is not enough – it needs to be communicated to them in an appropriate way if it is to be influential. Researchers are encouraged to ‘think like a marketeer’ and use personalised and tailored messages about research findings, as well as user-friendly design, to deliver their insight. 

The importance of increasing decision-makers’ skill level around using research was also highlighted: assuming an audience is familiar with all research terms was presented as a common stumbling block, and strengthened the evidence for the need for support in interpreting research. 

Another important practice was revealed as ensuring consensus between decision-makers and researchers on the questions that need answering and what evidence is needed ‘at the frontline’ of decision-making. The Delphi technique of building consensus via a series of questionnaires was recommended. 

At the launch of the report at The Wellcome Trust in London last night, Jane Elliot, chief executive of the Economic and Social Research Council (who chaired the panel discussing the report’s findings), highlighted three key challenges in enabling research use: the first is the quality of evidence that is presented, and a need for cynicism with regard to what we are told. She tied this in to a need for increased skills among decision-makers: "If decision-makers were also producers of research, would that make them better consumers of it?" she asked. 

The second challenge, according to Elliot, is the need to look at evidence use on a micro level: there’s a need to not just synthesise research, but to look at the mechanisms of delivering it; to understand at an individual level what is needed and how. 

The last challenge, she said, is at the macro level. She encouraged researchers to think of themselves as ‘just one person around the table'. "As Prof. Ken Prewitt at Columbia says: we should be talking about ‘evidence-influenced policy’ not ‘evidence-based policy'. It’s not about cranking a handle and saying: ‘the evidence says this'."