Cairney, P. et al. Health Research Policy & Systems, 2017; 15: 35
There is extensive health and public health literature on the ‘evidence-policy gap’, exploring the frustrating experiences of scientists trying to secure a response to the problems and solutions they raise and identifying the need for better evidence to reduce policymaker uncertainty. We offer a new perspective by using policy theory to propose research with greater impact, identifying the need to use persuasion to reduce ambiguity, and to adapt to multi-level policymaking systems.
We identify insights from secondary data, namely systematic reviews, critical analysis and policy theories relevant to evidence-based policymaking. The studies are drawn primarily from countries such as the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. We combine empirical and normative elements to identify the ways in which scientists can, do and could influence policy.
We identify two important dilemmas, for scientists and researchers, that arise from our initial advice. First, effective actors combine evidence with manipulative emotional appeals to influence the policy agenda – should scientists do the same, or would the reputational costs outweigh the policy benefits? Second, when adapting to multi-level policymaking, should scientists prioritise ‘evidence-based’ policymaking above other factors? The latter includes governance principles such the ‘co-production’ of policy between local public bodies, interest groups and service users. This process may be based primarily on values and involve actors with no commitment to a hierarchy of evidence.
We conclude that successful engagement in ‘evidence-based policymaking’ requires pragmatism, combining scientific evidence with governance principles, and persuasion to translate complex evidence into simple stories. To maximise the use of scientific evidence in health and public health policy, researchers should recognise the tendency of policymakers to base judgements on their beliefs, and shortcuts based on their emotions and familiarity with information; learn ‘where the action is’, and be prepared to engage in long-term strategies to be able to influence policy; and, in both cases, decide how far you are willing to go to persuade policymakers to act and secure a hierarchy of evidence underpinning policy. These are value-driven and political, not just ‘evidence-based’, choices.