Wednesday, 13 June 2012

If it ain’t fixed, broker it

Guest post from Oliver Francis, Centre for Diet and Activity Research

Before I applied for my current job, I’d never heard of a Knowledge Broker. I’d always described what I did as ‘communications’. But a year in, this role has confirmed that the word 'communication' doesn’t really cover the challenges of linking public health evidence with policy and practice. In this time I’ve also met a couple of other ‘Brokers’ so I’m now a little less embarrassed about telling people my job title at parties.

As the recent Geek Manifesto reminds us, there are plenty of voices clamouring for more evidence-based policy making, so why does all this knowledge need brokering at all? Surely academics just need to publish their findings and they’ll be automatically taken up by policymakers and practitioners who want to do a good job.

Well, put simply, the world isn’t built like that. There are many barriers within the complex world of public health research translation. To take just one, there are often big gaps between the evidence that individual studies generate and the broader information that policymakers use to make their decisions. There are the practicalities of implementation, there’s money, ideology, politics, public opinion, the media. Or to put it another way: how many purely evidence-based decisions do you make in a day? Thought so.
Research translation: not so simples
One thing academics can do to help is make our research more available and easier to digest. So at CEDAR we’re producing short summaries of our research findings. Hopefully these Evidence Briefings are a step in the right direction. Indeed, these sorts of documents are increasingly common outputs from research groups, in addition to the wider syntheses of evidence coming from organisations such as NICE and (soon) Public Health England.

So, writing engaging and straightforward summaries of emerging, nuanced and complex evidence in no more than two pages… Simples! Well, actually, not so simples. For instance, how do we deal with expressing uncertainty for those who need to make clear cut decisions? How do we produce something that’s short enough to hold attention, but long enough to convey all the important information without a hundred web links? How do we convince a local authority in Newcastle to pay attention to findings generated in Cambridgeshire? People love case studies, but as we know, the plural of anecdote is not data. How can we make sure we tell only ‘true stories’?

Or should we just face up to the fact that there is a limit to what researchers can contribute to this process? Is the job of academic institutions just to produce summaries of the evidence in plain English, and then leave it to others to interpret them in the light of the demands of the so called ‘real world’?

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Have a look at the first Briefing in the series about physical activity and schools, and take our quick survey to tell us what you think of it. Or post here, or contact me directly if you’ve something to share. Even if you don’t work in this particular area, your views can help us improve future Briefings on other topics, and hopefully make sure that as little as possible gets lots in translation.


  1. If I may rant at a slight tangent... summaries and evidence briefings are great ways to give an overview, and tend to be very readily accessible. This is fantastic, and really valuable. But often, there isn't a summary available, or people working in public health want to leap off from the summary into the detailed evidence.

    Here, there's a problem, and you hit the nail on the head when you say that "one thing academics can do to help is make our research more available". Access to journals for people working in NHS public health can be terrible - this is something I've ranted about before (, and I think it's a barrier that is often underestimated by academics who are typically employed by universities who typically have fantastic journal access management solutions.

    At least twice a week, someone in the office where I work struggles to access a relevant paper published in a major journal, and an email or shout goes round the office asking if anyone has access. It seems crazy that the primary evidence is put so far out of reach on the occasions where people want to consult it. This problem will surely only get worse at public health transitions away from the NHS, and hence away from NHS library services. I wonder if there's an academic study to be done there: recruit a whole load of folk working in public health, and observe them trying to access a pre-determined list of seminal public health journal articles using the access facilities provided by their employer within a set time limit (an hour?) - I bet they'd have access to fewer than a third at best.

    I don't want to detract from the fact that summaries and evidence briefings are incredibly valuable, and fulfil a very important need for public health specialists and practitioners. But I think there's a real problem with access to primary sources, and I don't think that's discussed enough.

  2. Thanks Simon - I agree - and as you'll know movement is, hopefully, happening in this area

    At CEDAR we've put all our papers on a publications database which should at least aid the finding of the most relevant ones, and as we continue population, wherever possible we will put up as much as we can in a way that is open access (within the rules, which we can't change!)

    Do take a moment to do our survey if you have time. Thanks :-)