Using Evidence, What Works? A discussion paper

By 25/03/2020

Using Evidence: What Works? is a well-formatted and easy-to-read discussion paper by Jonathan Breckon and Jane Dodson, and is an introduction to and discussion of the report The Science of Using Science: Researching the Use of Research Evidence in Decision-Making, an output of a project set up by the Alliance for Useful Evidence in September 2015.

Using Evidence begins with the idea that ‘evidence rarely speaks for itself’ and that, because of this, we must try and find the most effective ways to communicate evidence to decision-makers.

These ideas are conveyed through the lens of six mechanisms that allow research to be used: (1) awareness (of evidence use); (2) agreement (mutual understanding between researchers and decision-makers as to what sort evidence is useful); (3) access and communication (of evidence); (4) interaction (between researchers and decision-makers); (5) skills (of decision-makers to understand and make use of the evidence being communicated); and (6) structure and process (of decision-makers).

As the paper runs through these mechanisms, it examines each one through two reviews: Review 1: the mechanism’s impact on enabling evidence use, and Review 2: what we can learn about this mechanism from wider social science literature.

It soon becomes clear that for the most part Review 1 is inconclusive, limited by a lack of evidence and the inability to separate out the effects of each mechanism from others when they are used in combination (which, it turns out, is almost all of the time). The outliers of this trend are (3) access and communication and (5) skills, suggesting that possibly the other four mechanisms are only ever examined as subsets of these two.

Review 2 was often much more fruitful. The general themes emerging were the appropriate use of the internet – think social media, online learning, etc., and the importance of always presenting evidence with the audience in mind – considering what form research communication should take, what it should contain (infographics, combinations of words and numbers), when it should be communicated, and the importance of the language used (no jargon!).

The paper has a reflective conclusion and it’s a relief when it highlights some of the more obvious issues which have been running through the piece (the pithy subtitle ‘our research says….we need more research’ captures this well). It is also interesting to read some other considerations which haven’t featured previously in the paper, for instance the cost-worthiness of the different mechanisms and the need for more primary studies from outside the health sector.

To finish, the original study is commended for its breadth and utility and for finishing with a positive tone that leaves a sense of excitement about the future possibilities for evidence communication.