Impact Practitioners

Evaluation of current research-policy engagement activities and why they are failing

By 20/07/2023

This 23-page academic paper by a team of UK and U.S. scientists looks at research-policy engagement activities, studies their impact and draws lessons for those wishing to improve their evidence use. The authors argue that many research-policy engagement activities have sprung up in recent years with the aim to improve the use of evidence in policy and practice, but there isn’t much knowledge about what works and why. 

Overall, the academic paper identifies nine common research-policy engagement practices that appear in the studied sample of 1,923 initiatives: (1) disseminating and communicating research; (2) formal institutional requests for evidence; (3) facilitating access to research; (4) building decision-maker skills; (5) building researcher skills; (6) building professional partnerships; (7) strategic leadership; (8) rewarding impact; and (9) creating infrastructure and posts

However, the authors find that only 6% of these engagement initiatives are evaluated after their implementation. Because the majority is mostly unevaluated, poorly defined and not based on existing evidence and theory, the existing activities do not provide any valuable lessons. The authors also point out that many research-policy engagement activities are being selected on the basis of what is familiar and not what is effective.

Additionally, most activity – and most likely most money – is spent on disseminating and communicating research. However, relying solely on this area has been proven to be ineffective at producing policy change or societal impact because it doesn’t address the practical, cultural or institutional barriers to engagement. 

Recently, there has also been a focus on promoting initiatives that aim to initiate or support relations based on the idea that creating relationships leads to greater research use. The authors argue that such interpersonal links are indeed important in the production and use of evidence, but need to be underpinned by long-term strategy and institutional support. 

Overall, the paper finds that engagement activities often have unclear aims and do not understand the policy and practice contexts in which they want to operate. Most initiatives are still based on the assumption that decision-makers do not listen to research findings, although there is evidence pointing to the contrary. As a result, the initiatives are targeting a problem that is almost non-existent. This approach can be harmful rather than productive as it wastes time and resources.

The authors propose three main ways forward. Firstly, they recommend engaging with existing literature on what policy is and how it works to clarify the aims of research-policy activities. Secondly, when you have clear aims, use the existing evidence to plan and execute engagement effectively. Lastly, produce a clear plan of action that can be evaluated and see how your evaluation can help other projects. We should all strive to better understand the aims of different engagement strategies and evaluate whether they achieve their goals. 

In conclusion, the academic paper is a great resource that can help researchers, funders and practitioners better understand research-policy engagement. The authors discuss all nine identified practices in detail, giving examples and describing their current state. They also propose a few tips on how to create more effective engagement activities and not repeat previous mistakes.

This article is part of our initiative, R2A Impact Practitioners. To find out more, please click here.

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