Hawthorne Beyer

Evidence-based policy-making: can we improve the impact of research?

Since joining the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions at UQ I have been giving a lot of thought to the problem of how to improve the engagement between scientists and policy makers. Improving the way that science is communicated would certainly help in this regard, and I think the current trend towards placing greater emphasis on quantifying the impact of research is constructive.

I attended a one-day symposium on the theme of improving the impact of research hosted by Prof Brian Head and colleagues. One component of their research was a survey of many academics and policymakers. Some of the responses to questions were very interesting.

Academics and policymakers agreed on these priorities:

  • Findings are made available in a timely fashion
  • Findings have direct implications for policy
  • Research findings are clearly presented
  • Reports provide summaries of key findings

Interestingly, there was less agreement on two key priorities:

  • Research findings are unbiased (academics: 35% agree; policymakers: 71% agree)
  • Research is of high scientific quality (academics: 31% agree; policymakers: 54% agree)

I struggle to understand why academics value unbiased and high quality research so much less than the policymakers! I wonder if this reflects cynicism among scientists: perhaps they believe that the quality of the research is not a strong predictor about whether that science will impact policy?

It probably comes as no surprise that policymakers felt that policy was driven by:

  • Policy-making is driven by budgetary considerations
  • Policy decisions are based on what is politically acceptable
  • Urgent day-to-day issues take precedence over long-term thinking

while the issues that academics identified as road blocks to research collaborations were:

  • The time needed to coordinate work between partners
  • Different research orientations with partners
  • Complex contractual arrangements
  • Time consuming and cumbersome ethics process

Scientists also identified barriers to translation of research into a more policy-relevant form:

  • Academic reward systems do not adequately recognize dissemination of work to non-academic users
  • The requirement to publish in peer-reviewed journals inhibits a focus on policy
  • High time and resource translation costs

I am always fascinated to learn more about "how policy works" because I have limited direct experience of it. The questions about policy-maker behaviour were, therefore, particularly interesting.

Policy-makers valued sources of expertise as follows:

  • Internal agency staff (93%)
  • Other fed/state agencies (83%)
  • Professional / industry associations (73%)
  • University researchers (70%)
  • Interest groups (63%)
  • International organisations (51%)
  • News media (51%)

I think it reflects poorly on university researchers that they rank fourth in this list. That is a very sad state of affairs.

One of the most insightful statistics was that searching the internet was rated the most important means of obtaining research information (94%).

I conclude that one obvious way I can make my own research more policy relevant is to present it in a readily digestible format that is discoverable by search engines. Scientific papers take a lot of time to read, and the abstracts often focus on the scientific aspects much more than policy aspects of the work. So it would make sense for scientists to make more of an effort to explain the policy implications of their work in a concise, publicly accessible format.

Australian Research Council DECRA Research Fellow

Email: hawthorne -at- spatialecology.com or h.beyer -at- uq.edu.au

Affiliations:

ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions &

Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science &

Environmental Decisions Group,

School of Biological Sciences, Goddard Building

University of Queensland

Brisbane, Queensland 4072 Australia