Thursday, 9 April 2015

How hard can it be? Flying over the gap between research and policy

Posted by Peter van der Graaf
A man in a hot air balloon realised he was lost. He reduced altitude and spotted a woman below. He came lower and shouted: “Excuse me, can you help? I promised a friend I would meet him, but I don’t know where I am”. The woman below replied: “You’re in a hot air balloon hovering approximately 30 feet above the ground. You’re between 40 and 41 degrees north latitude and between 59 and 60 degrees west longitude”.

“You must be a researcher,” said the balloonist. “I am,” replied the woman, “how did you know?” "Well,” answered the balloonist, “everything you told me is technically correct, but I’ve no idea what to make of your information, and the fact is I’m still lost. Frankly, you’ve not been much help at all. If anything, you’ve delayed my trip.”

The woman below responded: “You must be a policy maker”. “I am,” replied the balloonist, “but how did you know?” “Well,” said the woman, “you don’t know where you are or where you’re going. You made a promise, which you’ve no idea how to keep, and you expect people beneath you to solve your problems. The fact is you are in exactly the same position you were in before we met, but now, somehow, it’s my fault.”
This story was presented by Professor Roland Bal from Erasmus University in Rotterdam, the Netherlands in his recent Knowledge Exchange Seminar titled: ‘Hybrid management in science-policy practice relations’. You might have heard the story before, as it is adapted from an article by Locock & Boaz in 2004 in Social Policy and Society and also quoted in the PhD thesis of one his students, Rik Wehrens (2013), who studied the Dutch Academic Collaborative Centres for Public Health and how they shaped the co-production of research, policy and practice within this field in the low lands.

In his seminar Roland used the above story to explain that we often fall into the trap of thinking of two communities (ivory tower scientists on the one hand and policy makers at the coalface on the other) with completely different perspectives on the use of research and evidence. He did not deny there were differences between both professions, and gaps to bridge but suggested that we should use these gaps more strategically. By starting from a recognition that all science is a social practice quoting Jasanoff (2004) (“Scientific knowledge [..] both embeds and is embedded in social practices, identities, norms, conventions, discourses, instruments and institutions” (p. 2-3)) he showed how the Dutch Centres have been able to blur the boundaries between the two communities by distinguishing between a front and back stage for their partnerships and performing on these stages at different times in the collaboration process.

At front stage the academics took the limelight and made all the right noises about scientific rigour by presenting their advisory report to public and policy audiences, complete with imposing lecture theatres. They deliberately emphasised the difference between academics and health professionals to create the impression of ‘science speaking truth to power’. However, the content of the reports and the research behind were intensely debated behind the scenes on various back stages between academics, health professionals and policy makers to ensure that the research objectives and findings were embedded in the wider political context. In other words, collaboration and distinction were highlighted at different times in the process to enable each community to explain and sell their work to their peers: policy makers needed to account for their compromises and shared decisions, and academics needed to manage the expectation around their research.

Two key mechanisms provided crucial in this staging: firstly, dual appointments that enabled health practitioners to take up part-time roles in academia (but surprisingly not the other way round!) and, secondly, scenario approaches that clustered specific interventions into modelled scenarios connected to relevant policy programmes.

What lessons does this hold for Fuse? Are we still trying to bridge the two communities or should we spend more time developing different stages? AskFuse (our responsive research and evaluation service) might be a step in the right direction to create the back stage for initial conversations between policy makers, health professionals and academics but where is our front stage? Are we making enough noise? And how serious are we about dual appointments (researchers in residence?) and linking research on interventions to specific policy programmes?

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