Bridging the science – policy gap

Researchers and policymakers have completely different roles – their remits cannot replace one another. But there is growing consensus that the gap between them must be narrowed if society is to cope with the challenges of health and welfare.

Medical and Social Science & Practice

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Man with pencil on a bridgeThe relationship between science and policy is far from simple. Many researchers have described the problems associated with the divide between them – the science-policy gap.
While science is devoted to the pursuit of knowledge, policy pertains to the discussion of what goals should be achieved based on values and available resources. While their roles must be kept separate, collaboration between them should be improved, according to critics. [1] Many call for a more evidence-based and systemic decision-making process – especially with respect to complex and drastic threats to the future such as dangerous infectious diseases, exhausting the planet’s resources and climate change. [2] But bridging the gap between science and policy poses several challenges.

A first challenge is related to the super-specialisation and fragmentation of both science [3] and policymaking, [4] while many problems remain intertwined. Human health and welfare depend on more than just healthcare and social services policy. Other factors such as education, employment, finances, living environment both at home and at work, transportation and social relationships also have an impact.
Although the issues in question are interrelated, the responsibilities, budgets and planning rarely are. Silo mentality, turf guarding and inadequate oversight in both academia and politics may become devastating given the complex nature of interactions between lifestyles, living conditions and human health.

The next problem is to deal with incomplete knowledge and scientific uncertainty.
Policymakers, including their staff who draft the policies, may lack knowledge of relevant research findings. They may not have the knowledge to determine whether the findings are reliable and how they should be interpreted. Sometimes there are no scientifically sound answers to current policy questions; [5] for example, in cases when it is difficult or impossible to test them experimentally. [6] Many research studies are focused on narrow questions, without considering the knowledge gaps where the need for an improved decision-making basis is greatest. [7,8] Politically relevant issues may not be clearly defined. Addressing uncertainty requires extrapolation or generalisation, based on assumptions and models.
A third challenge is that researchers and policymakers often have different time horizons. Policy often moves quicker than science. Social issues are sometimes difficult to predict and may rapidly become urgent. Previously forgotten issues can suddenly become highly relevant. Politicians often find themselves forced to make quick decisions based on preliminary knowledge and forecasts, while researchers prefer to carefully test new hypotheses and slowly build on existing knowledge.9 These disciplines cannot always be synchronised so that current and reliable data are available precisely when a decision is to be made.
When researchers are queried in surveys whether they communicate with policymakers, many respond that they would like to do so, but do not have the time.10 In a 2018 Swedish survey of 18,000 researchers and postgraduate students, two-thirds of the 3,700 researchers who responded said that policymakers and politicians are the single most important group with which to communicate. At the same time, however, this target group ranked only fifth among those with whom the respondents had actually communicated in the past year. [10] The reported lack of time may in turn have many causes. In international studies [11], researchers and policymakers also point to the importance of networking opportunities, access to information, organisational support, mutual understanding of each other’s roles and work processes, as well as costs and finances.

It is also not a given that all policymakers care about research results, or that researchers are interested in policy problems. After all, their motivations are different. [2] In extreme cases, they directly distance themselves from each other’s work – known as “fact resistance” or “contempt for politicians” – or they cherry pick pieces of information that support their own views and agendas.
The use of scientific knowledge by policymakers can be divided into three categories – instrumental, conceptual and symbolic use. [12] In instrumental use, knowledge directly guides the decisions to be made. Conceptual use is more indirect: knowledge influences the long-term attitude of politicians and officials concerning various problems and how they should be addressed. Finally, in symbolic use, policymakers are merely seeking legitimacy for a decision that has already been taken. In practice, it can be assumed that many policies combine elements from all three categries. Also policymaking often requires adapting the general knowledge from research to a specific situation in a particular context.

Researchers, for their part, may have no interest in policy issues or ideologically based priority-setting. They may fail to realise that decisions are not based solely on knowledge and that policy is also shaped by what is possible to get through the political decision-making process. Although the “third mission” (collaboration and outreach) of public universities and higher education institutions in Sweden includes making use of research findings, [13] there is also significant confusion among researchers concerning its implications. [14]
While many point to an urgent need for better collaboration between research and policy, other authors argue in favour of clearly separating the knowledge-generating role of research from policy practices. Both are necessary, but they are not interchangeable. For example, the democratic process may suffer in the case of expert rule where knowledge replaces policy, or where dogmatic policy masquerades as knowledge. [15] Uncritical deference to all claims perceived as expert opinion is also problematic.

Since policy decisions are prepared by officials, this group also play a key role in the dialogue between researchers and politicians. In their capacity as intermediaries, they must have sufficient knowledge to avoid misinterpretation of research findings. They must be able to understand the basis for decisions so that politicians can comprehend the ideological implications, as well as what is feasible in terms of values and acceptance by voters.
Despite the pitfalls and challenges, many agree that the gap between what research shows and what policy dictates should narrow. Well-informed decisions concerning health and welfare - evidence-informed policy – are based insofar as possible on relevant, unbiased and comprehensive factual basis, and sufficient knowledge of likely effects. RL

References

  1. Widman Lundmark L, et al. ”Var är forskningen i de politiska manifesten?” Opinion piece by representatives of 61 knowledge organisations in the newspaper SvD 2018-09-09.
  2. Martin K, et al. Overcoming the research to policy gap. The Lancet Global Health 2019. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2214-109X(19)30082-8
  3. Vetenskapsrådet. Forskningsöversikt 2019. Medicin och hälsa. Downloaded from www.vr.se
  4. Marmot M, et al. Closing the gap in a generation: health equity through action on the social determinants of health. Lancet 2008;375:1661-9.
  5. Science Advice for Policy by European Academies. Making sense of science for policy under conditions of complexity and uncertainty. Berlin: SAPEA, 2019. https://doi.org/10.26356/MASOS
  6. Brännmark J. Evidensbasering i politiken. I: Sahlin NE [red]. Vetenskap och beprövad erfarenhet: Politik. Lund: Lunds universitet, 2018.
  7. Chalmers I, et al. Avoidable waste in the production ... of research evidence. Lancet 2009;374:86-9.
  8. Glasziou P, et al. Research waste is still a scandal, BMJ 2018;363:k4645.
  9. Bell C, et al. Providing policy makers with timely advice: The timeliness-rigor trade-off. World Bank policy research working paper No. 7610, 2016.
  10. Bohlin G, et al. Forskares syn på kommunikation och öppen vetenskap. Nationell enkätundersökning 2019. VA-rapport 2019:8.
  11. Oliver et al. A systematic review of barriers to and facilitators of the use of evidence by policymakers. BMC Health Services Research 2014;14:2.
  12. Knaggård Å. Vetenskaplig kunskap i politiken. I: Sahlin NE [red]. Vetenskap och beprövad erfarenhet: Politik. Lund: Lunds universitet, 2018.
  13. Högskolelag 1992:1434. Downloaded from https://lagen.nu/1992:1434#K1P2S2
  14. Bohlin G, et al. Forskares syn på forskningskommunikation och öppen vetenskap. VA-rapport 2018:1.
  15. Torgerson D. Between knowledge and politics: Three faces of policy. Analysis & Policy Sciences 1986;19:33-59.

 

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