Engaging policy audiences

Bridging the research–policy gap

By 27/02/2019

Professor Paul Boreham, Dr Adrian Cherney, and Professor Brian Head from the University of Queensland conducted a study which identified a range of issues impeding the uptake of academic research in policy development. These issues widen the gap between research and practice. However this gap can be bridged with initiatives that improve research translation and facilitate engagement between academics and public servants.

Why it matters

Policymakers need access to robust and high-quality research evidence when developing new policies and programmes. As a major producer of research, the university sector has significant opportunities to influence policy and practice. But the different cultures, incentives, and expertise of both institutions can affect the uptake of academic research.

Policymakers often complain that academic research is not timely or relevant to their needs, while academics argue that practitioners ignore the research they produce. How true are these generalisations? And what can be done to improve the application of research to policy development?

The study

The project examined research use in Australian public-sector agencies at the state and federal level. It looked at the processes and practices that facilitate and hinder research uptake as well as ways to bridge the research–policy gap. The study involved surveying and interviewing researchers and public servants.

The public service survey:

  • targeted staff working in policy advice and development; research and evaluation; data collection or analysis; and service design and delivery;
  • included middle-level to senior management;
  • included 10 central agencies and 11 human services agencies; and
  • had 2,084 public servants complete the survey with around two-thirds from state government.

The academic survey:

  • targeted researchers who had secured at least one Australian Research Council grant between 2001 and 2010 in the field of social and behavioural science; and
  • was sent to 1,950 academic researchers, with 612 surveys completed (32 percent response rate).

Interviews were conducted with 100 academics and 125 policy officials.

Findings: public sector

Colleagues and other federal or state government agencies were cited as the most important sources of research information while internal agency staff were the most frequently consulted source of policy information.

Although academic research is seen as valuable, it is not being used by the majority of staff in policy decision-making.

The barriers to research uptake were:

  • the need to translate research into a user-friendly form;
  • academics lacking expertise in communicating their research to policymakers;
  • difficulties in accessing full-text versions of academic articles and reports;
  • lack of opportunities to build relationships with researchers;
  • pressures of time, political priorities; and urgent day-to-day issues taking precedence over long-term thinking.

Findings: academic researchers

The time needed to co-ordinate research work with government partners and the different research orientations was seen as problematic. Refereed journals were most important for presenting and/or discussing research.

Barriers to research uptake included:

  • academic reward systems which do not adequately recognise dissemination;
  • the academic requirement to publish;
  • substantial costs in translating research for non-academic users; and
  • insufficient forums to bring together researchers with end users.

The bottom line

There are impediments to the uptake of research from the perspectives of both academic researchers and policymakers. These include incentives, communication, and the different institutional cultures. The groups agree there is a need for research translation and opportunities to build relationships.

The project team suggested the following to improve the use and impact of academic research:

  • Making research accessible, e.g. summary documents
  • Translating research findings into policy-relevant results
  • Establishing networks to bring together academic researchers and policymakers

This brief was first published on The Mandarin. It is the first in a series from The Mandarin in partnership with the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG). Each fortnight, they will publish a research brief which distills academic and other research into an easy-to-read format that walks you through the main points.