OPINION11 December 2019

How can the research industry amplify evidence?

Election 2019 Opinion Public Sector Trends UK

Evidence has never been more important in the public sphere, yet politicians are more influenced by their own personal principles and experiences. Researchers can play a crucial role in helping to improve the uptake of reliable data, writes Kelly Beaver.

The heady days of the Blair government’s commitment to evidence-based policy making are long gone. What we have now is the more diluted – but perhaps more realistic – approach of ‘evidence-informed policy’. Realistic in a world of political disruption where public opinion looms ever larger on the mind of a political candidate.

But how can the evidence community, and more specifically the research industry, help to improve the use of evidence by our politicians, especially in a climate where misinformation spreads rapidly, and our representatives are as susceptible as the rest of us to confirmation bias and fake news?

In true research style, why not ask the politicians? And so, we did. Despite being the least trusted profession in the UK today (only 14% of British people trust politicians, 2019 Ipsos Mori Veracity Index) MPs were refreshingly honest about how they make decisions, and the extent to which evidence informs these. We found that, for MPs, the personal is political when it comes to decision-making. Almost half of the MPs we spoke with face-to-face told us that their own principles should be one of the most important factors in making decisions ( 47%), while a quarter ( 26%) said the same of their own experiences.

It’s not just about what they think and see, though. While Michael Gove may have insisted that the public have had enough of experts, the same cannot be said of our politicians. MPs still value the opinions of experts and use their work to inform their decisions. 

However, the dispiriting finding for us researchers is that more traditional forms of evidence generated on behalf of government policy teams such as findings from pilot schemes, controlled trials and survey data research are not as influential on politicians’ decision-making processes as their own personal experiences and principles.   

But why? Beyond the age-old excuse of not having enough time (mentioned by 30%), we see confirmation bias at work here; MPs recognise that they are not open to evidence that contradicts the party line. However, there’s also a skills issue to deal with here. Our qualitative responses show the importance of credibility and independence of evidence sources, and of helping to educate MPs in what makes good evidence, and how to select reliable data from the mass available to them.

In the research community, we need to think hard about what we can do to bridge this gap. Improved communication is a priority; one in five ( 20%) MPs want the evidence to be clearer or better explained. Further, in an era of misinformation and fake news, the role of a ‘trusted evidence broker’ is becoming increasingly important. Organisations such as the UK What Works Centres have been instated over the past 10 years to help synthesise, communicate and smooth the relationship between research generators in academia and the commercial sector with the policy teams and ministers. But evidence generators in the commercial sector need to think much more about the barriers to evidence uptake, and how they can support improvements.

If I had to pick my top three areas for us researchers to focus on, I would say:

  • independent reputation
  • multidisciplinary teams
  • impactful outputs.

Firstly, given the challenges politicians have in identifying good and balanced evidence, the importance of commercial research organisations having a strong reputation as a neutral and independent source of evidence cannot be overstated. This organisational independence should be protected at all costs.

It is important to recognise that to encourage uptake of evidence the research industry needs to continue evolve to be more multi-disciplinary including: qualitative and quantitative researchers; policy specialists, evaluators, economists, statisticians, communications and marketing professionals, graphic designers, I could go on. We also have to triangulate these different data sources so we can provide our politicians with powerful stories that stick, as well as the numerical data to back these up.

Lastly, we can no longer have the excuse that we didn’t have the time to write a short report so it needed to be 100 pages plus annexes. Yes, some of the central government clients do require this level of detail for publication purposes, but actually we can be much more innovative as an industry in helping our clients to communicate to their ministers in impactful ways.

Beyond this, there are things the sector can do to promote the use of evidence – which we are embarking on in 2020 with partners from across the evidence community.  Get in touch if you are interested in being involved.

Kelly Beaver is managing director of  the Social Research Institute at Ipsos Mori

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