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The challenges of evidence-based policy-making

03 May 2017

Sarah Chaytor, Director of Research Strategy & Policy at UCL, considers how some of the known challenges can be addressed.

When, over a year ago, UCL decided to work with CaSE to support a project exploring the use of evidence in policy-making, we certainly didn’t expect to be publishing the report at the beginning of a general election campaign. We also hadn’t anticipated the major policy challenges arising from the decision to leave the European Union, and that will emerge following the UK’s withdrawal as a number of policy responsibilities are repatriated to the UK. Now, more than ever, is a time for robust, well-informed policymaking that takes account of the evidence – and a time for engaging with the experts who can help.

Despite the progress of recent years, particularly in terms of the concept of evidence-informed policy receiving more attention in both policy and academic circles, this remains a vexed issue. The UK has a relatively strong scientific advice structure (as the CaSE report notes). Moreover, some of the key barriers and difficulties that can be encountered are at least well-understood; and yet, they persist.

As one of the most significant providers of evidence and knowledge, universities can play a crucial role in strengthening evidence-based policy-making. Universities carry out what is generally publicly-funded research to discover new things and test hypotheses – but our role can’t simply be to publish that research and then sit back. I believe we have a duty to think about how we can make the research we undertake as accessible as possible, and to actively engage with policymakers in helping to get relevant knowledge and evidence into the policy process. So my particular interest in all this is how we can support academic-policy engagement in order to improve the use of evidence in decision-making. 

The UCL Public Policy initiative is one way we’re trying to approach this at UCL and to encourage greater engagement between researchers and policymakers; our approach has been very much on ‘learning by doing’, in order to build a greater culture of policy engagement amongst our academics and provide additional opportunities for interaction. I’ve started to think about what we do as really being about maximising the ‘right person, right place, right time’ opportunities, whereby someone with relevant academic and evidential knowledge is talking to someone on the policy side with need of that knowledge at the time that they need it. These situations are almost impossible to engineer – but we can facilitate greater awareness and interaction in order to make them more likely.

There are also other crucial dimensions to this – not least academics and researchers better understanding what policy needs are, and how they, as researchers, might respond. It’s for that reason I’m particularly keen to see the report’s recommendation on publishing departmental ‘areas of research interests’ (ARIs) which will help researchers start to grapple with some of the policy questions identified and to think about how their future research might address them. Some Government departments and agencies have already published their ARIs in recent weeks; extending this across all Government departments (and adopting a consistent format across Government) could help researchers who actively want to tackle policy challenges to understand which are most pertinent – as well as how they can adopt an early stakeholder engagement or co-production approach. I think going further and supplementing the publication of ARIs with engagement events to explore the questions in more detail (or even refine them, if ARIs are seen as a ‘living’ publication) would support meaningful interaction between the academic community and Government departments on the policy challenges identified.

Equally helpful in this regard are the report’s recommendations around publishing a cross-Government database of commissioned research, and the body of evidence that underpins policy decisions, which should enable more understanding of what work has or is being undertaken, where the gaps are, and the role of evidence in particular policy areas. These should both help in building mutual understanding between academics and policymakers – as I see it, one of the crucial issues – and increasing transparency in the policy process.

The recommendation about increasing the number of exchanges and secondments between Government and academia is also very important. A number of UCL researchers have participated in Research Council secondment schemes, POST fellowships, or the Royal Society pairing scheme, as well as our own internal policy placement scheme, and without exception, they have all appreciated the opportunity to build their understanding of what a policy environment is like, and how research and evidence is and can be used in that environment. Similarly, there are undoubtedly significant benefits to those working in policy environments spending more time in academia to build their networks and their understanding of how academic culture may differ from their own – CSaP’s hugely successful Policy Fellows scheme is testament to this. So I wholly support not just UKRI enabling more secondments and exchanges, but Government departments thinking about how their officials might spend more time in universities (and other organisations) to get closer to the evidence and expertise that can help in policy development.

Finally, I think the report’s discussion of evaluation highlights one of the most complex problems in the evidence-based policy debate: how can rigorous evaluation of a policy’s success (or otherwise) be conducted in a policy environment which emphasises the development of new policies rather than the assessment of old ones, and a political environment which actively discourages the prospect of policy u-turns and thus any hope of adopting a Keynesian approach (‘When the facts change, I change my mind…’)? I don’t pretend to have the answers but I think it’s important that we continue to debate this.

I really welcome CaSE’s thorough investigation of this challenging and, to me, ever-fascinating issue, and I look forward to working with CaSE and others to advance the recommendations in this new report.

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