Is it time to better understand how policymakers understand research?

The call for research to move towards policy and to bridge the gap between them has been around for quite some time now. Many efforts have been made to do this, but yet there is still a lack of understanding of the reasons why policymakers choose (or not) to use research and incorporate it into their decisions. Vivian Tseng provides a conceptual framework that sheds light on how policy and practice use research by looking at factors like the definition of research that policymakers use, their perceptions of its relevance, the forces that influence their use of research, etc. She argues that the research community needs a stronger comprehension of how policymakers incorporate research, and that this is an area ripe for scientific study which will allow researchers to produce more useful work and better engage with practitioners.

Existing approaches that study the relationship between research and practice focus mainly on the research side. Their logic is that if researchers produce high quality work and communicate it well, then it will be used by policymakers. As a result, considerable effort has been made on improving the quality of research as well as in communicating and marketing it. However, it is important to stop focusing on researchers and begin to examine what factors encourage and influence practitioners to use research and understand their perceptions about it.

Tseng describes a conceptual framework which will aid researchers to better understand their audience. First, they must identify the research users. One strategy is to consider the issues that researchers seek to inform, and then work backward to the organizations and decision makers who play key roles. For instance, child development researchers seek to inform federal policymakers and frontline practitioners, but usually leave out mid-level actors and organizations that can be in a better position to shape youth’s daily lives. Another important group of research users are intermediaries, who are individuals and organizations that translate research for use for policymakers. This last group, however, has been deemed as artificial by some who consider that in the research/demand relationship players interact with each other and often perform several roles at once.

The second component of this framework is how research is defined, acquired, interpreted and used by policymakers and practitioners. It is commonly believed that the model for this is rational and linear, but that is rarely the case. It is not as simple as a research user finding research for his dilemma and including it in their decision. To start, people hold different definitions of what research is, and recognizing these differences helps to avoid inadvertently talking past others. Being aware of how people define research is also vital for understanding how research is acquired, interpreted and used.

Research also comes in different shapes and forms. Most people would agree that research in­cludes findings from a single study or syntheses of findings from multiple studies. For many people, research is also embodied within products, such as practice guidelines, cur­ricula, evidence-based programs, and assessment tools.

Regarding acquiring research, shifting the focus towards the demand side of the research-policymaker/practitioner relationship results in questions like what their main sources of information are, how they come to trust these sources, and how they seek out new information. Early work suggests that an important factor is policymakers and practitioners’ sets of relationships and interactions with people they trust.

Furthermore, researchers must note that research does not speak for itself – users always interpret its meaning and its implications for their decisions. The way each group or individual interprets research is based on their professional training, prior knowledge, their goals and rules for evidence, and whether or not the research challenges the status quo. Additionally, there are various ways of using research. Researchers always hope for instrumental use, which is when research directly influences policy, and lament political use, in which research is used to justify a decision already made. Other uses are conceptual use, when researchers influence how policymakers think about an issue; imposed use, when funding is tied to the adoption of certain research; and process use, what practitioners learn from participating in the production of research.

As mentioned above, policymakers and practitioners’ relationships can be useful in determining why and how they use research. As any social activity, research use unfolds within political and policy context as well as a social ecology of relationships and organisational settings. The study of research use needs to take into account the ways that social, political and economic forces affect individual and group processes.

It is not enough to get the research “right” and communicating it clearly: practitioners and policymakers always need to interpret research and its implications, which means that the researcher that understands the way his intended audience interprets his work will be better positioned to make a contribution to policy.