Bridging the gap between research and policy
Despite these problems with the idea of simply doing ‘what works’, the idea has been highly influential in supporting a wide range of efforts that aim to increase the use of evidence within policy. Such efforts are particularly based around the belief that there is a ‘gap’ between research and policy that must be bridged in order to achieve the great potential of scientific research evidence (Bennett and Jessani 2011; Cairney 2015; Van der Arend 2014). The former director of the World Health Organization, for instance, explained that: ‘Scientifically excellent public health guidelines and other reliable information sit inert in journals and databases unless there is political commitment . . . to turning knowledge into action that will get results on the ground’ (Lee 2003, p. 473). Similarly the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) has developed recommendations for ‘bridging the gap between researchers and policy makers’ (UNCTAD 2006, p. 1), explaining that: ‘There tends to be a lack of communication between researchers and policy makers. Policy makers are not always informed about ongoing research and researchers often lack knowledge of the most pressing policy questions that they would need to make their research more relevant’ (2006, p. 2).
However, this idea of a gap to be bridged dates back at least to the 1970s, when Caplan explained that: literature abounds with social scientists [sic] speculations about why information they produce has little impact on policy matters . . . the most prevalent theory found in this literature may be characterized as the ‘Two-Communities’ theory . . . Authors who hold this view attempt to explain non-utilization in terms of the relationship of the researcher and the research system to the policy maker and the policy-making system.
(1979, p. 459)
This ‘two communities’ model has been the underlying concept behind a veritable cottage industry of work dedicated to some form of ‘knowledge transfer’, also referred to by linked terms such as knowledge mobilisation, knowledge translation, knowledge management, knowledge exchange and knowledge brokering (Davies, Powell and Nutley 2015; Shaxson et al. 2012). Common strategies under these headings particularly try to bring together researchers (or research results) and policy decision makers, including: ‘research-push’ efforts to improve the dissemination of evidence (such as by writing policy briefs and conducting systematic reviews); ‘policy-pull’ efforts to strengthen the capacity of policy makers to use research (e.g. by training decision makers on how to understand systematic reviews); or through ‘bridging the gap’ via linkage and exchange mechanisms that facilitate the transfer of information between sets of researchers and policy makers (Bennett and Jessani 2011; Lavis 2009; Start and Hovland 2004; SUPPORT Programme undated; UNCTAD 2006; World Health Organization undated).
There has even been at least one experimental evaluation of knowledge transfer efforts. Structured as a randomised controlled trial, Dobbins and colleagues (2009) tested whether different efforts at knowledge brokering were more or less effective with decision makers within Canadian public health departments. However, the study’s findings were limited. They found no significant effect for their primary outcome (the extent to which research evidence was ‘used’ in a recent policy decision) and only a secondary effect from providing ‘targeted, tailored messages’ in broader programmatic decisions. The authors explain that the impact seen was mediated by the organisational culture of the department, concluding that there is a need for a greater understanding of organisational factors and of strategies that meet the needs of specific organisations.