WALDEN Evidence-based Policymaking Evidence And Policy? Article Review Please peruse the attached article, Evidence-Based Policymaking is Not Like Evidence-Based Medicine, So How Far Should You Go to Bridge the Divide Between Evidence And Policy?Discuss insights gained from the reading. Cairney and Oliver Health Research Policy and Systems (2017) 15:35
Evidence-based policymaking is not like
evidence-based medicine, so how far
should you go to bridge the divide
between evidence and policy?
and Kathryn Oliver3,4
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.
Keywords: Evidence-based medicine, Evidence-based policymaking, Implementation science, Improvement science,
Storytelling, Policy ambiguity, Complex government, United Kingdom government, Scottish government
* Correspondence: firstname.lastname@example.org
Politics and Public Policy at the University of Stirling, Stirling, United
Division of History and Politics, University of Stirling, Stirling FK9 4LA, United
Full list of author information is available at the end of the article
© The Author(s). 2017 Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0
International License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and
reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to
the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made. The Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication waiver
(http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/) applies to the data made available in this article, unless otherwise stated.
Cairney and Oliver Health Research Policy and Systems (2017) 15:35
Background: the limits to a focus on barriers
between evidence and policy
The health sciences are well represented in studies of
the evidence-policy gap, in which academics describe
their attempts to overcome barriers between the production of evidence by scientists and its use by policymakers. Oliver et al.s [1, 2] systematic reviews draw
insights from 126 health policy studies published from
20002012. The most frequently-reported barriers relate to problems with disseminating high quality information effectively, namely the lack of time, support,
resources and incentives for scientists to engage in
dissemination. These studies suggest that scientific
evidence is often not presented at the correct time and
scientists are unable to anticipate a demand for
information to solve a very specific problem quickly.
Further, policymakers lack the research skills to understand scientific evidence. More generally, there are different scientific and policymaker cultures . These
insights generally come from a small number of countries, including the United States, United Kingdom,
Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
There are two key problems with this literature. First,
very few studies draw on policy theory or other forms of
knowledge of the policy process . Most are based on
personal practitioner perspectives generated through, for
example, surveys, focus groups and academicpolicymaker workshops. They generally have a particular
reference point, namely evidence-based medicine (EBM)
. The EBM agenda is (1) to gather the best evidence
on health interventions, based on a hierarchy of
methods, in which randomised control trials and their
systematic review are at the top, and (2) to ensure that it
has a direct impact on practice, to exhort practitioners
to replace bad interventions. Individual clinicians have
high discretion on how to use the evidence, but based
on a common ideal and understanding of evidence quality. Consequently, the studies present limited findings
because (1) their source material is restricted primarily
to interviewees with minimal knowledge of policymaking, and (2) potential solutions are based on a misperception of the policy process, built on EBM
assumptions, not policy theory .
The most-frequently stated solutions to barriers highlight the limits to such a theoretical analysis. For example, to address the problem of supply, studies
highlight the need for improved dissemination to ensure that policymakers pay attention to, and understand,
the best evidence . Too few studies recognise that
policymakers will not share the sense that there is a hierarchy of evidence. Too many assume that better dissemination will prompt policymakers to think, like
scientists, that the scientific evidence alone is persuasive
Page 2 of 11
To address demand, the most-proposed solution is
to develop scientific competence in government. Too
many studies assume that it is realistic to produce
a captive audience of policymakers willing to invest
the time to prioritise and understand scientific
evidence. This approach is at odds with the less rigid
ways in which policymakers use many forms of
evidence [3, 69].
Second, too few studies recognise the role of values in
politics. Instead, an often implicit and untested assumption is that policymaking should be as evidence based
as medicine, which is at odds with the more common
starting point, in the study of politics, to produce a
democratic system which translates competing societal
values and preferences into policy solutions. One may
desire a political system based on value judgements and
evidence, but should recognise and address the tradeoffs between these aims, and that the production of
evidence is also an inherently value-driven process.
New directions for evidence-based policy research:
two foundational questions
We address these gaps in the literature by raising two
questions designed to promote discussion about pragmatic policy strategies. Each question identifies a central
insight from policy studies and prompts scientists to
consider how they would combine an attachment to
evidence-based policymaking with other values to produce a realistic way forward.
1. How far should scientists go to persuade
policymakers to act on their evidence?
Policy studies suggest that actors are influential
when they frame their evidence in simple,
manipulative and/or emotional terms to generate
policymaker attention. Should scientists also
combine evidence with emotional appeals to
influence the policy agenda? Should they deny
scientific uncertainty and make unequivocal claims
about the implications of their evidence? Or, does
this strategy produce an ethical dilemma and/or the
potential to reduce long-term scientific credibility?
2. How far should scientists go to defend a hierarchy
of evidence to deliver policy solutions?
Initially, policy studies prompt us to identify where
the action is, to know where to engage in a
complex and multi-level system in which many
actors make policy in many venues. However, it does
not identify the main aim of engagement. Is it to
make sure that all actors prioritise evidence-based
policymaking above other factors, or to cooperate
with other actors with different ideas about good
policymaking? The latter can include governance
principles such as localism and the co-production
Cairney and Oliver Health Research Policy and Systems (2017) 15:35
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 when they
implement policy solutions.
Consequently, insights from policy studies provide practical advice and raise new dilemmas (summarised in
Table 1). Our discussion takes us beyond existing debates
on the hierarchy of evidence and primary role of randomised control trials (RCTs) in policy evaluation. Initially, it
invites us to reflect on the extent to which a commitment
to a hierarchy prompts the need for fidelity to evidencebased solutions, limiting local policymaking discretion to
ensure the correct dosage of an intervention and maintain continuous RCT-based evaluation. Then, we should
consider the role of governance principles such as localism and co-production which encourage local practitioners to modify policy solutions to meet the specific
circumstances of communities and preferences articulated
by service users. If we accept the value of these principles,
what are the implications for evidence-based policymaking (at least in the countries usually covered by this
literature) and how might we design a process to manage
the trade-offs between scientific evidence and values?
To develop new perspectives on these questions, we
identify insights from secondary data, namely systematic
reviews , critical analysis  and policy theories relevant to evidence-based policymaking [3, 10, 11]. 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 should try to influence policy. Our case study draws
partly from an ESRC-funded study based on 30
Page 3 of 11
anonymous semi-structured interviews with civil servants in the Scottish and United Kingdom governments.
We use this this data to produce models of evidencebased policymaking (described in more depth in ),
then analyse the dilemmas that they present for
To provide context for the second question, we place the
possible responses that scientists could make on a
spectrum, from purist, or the insistence on the primacy of
RCT evidence and fidelity to successful interventions during policy implementation, to the diplomatic, treating evidence as part of a success story, encouraging the autonomy
of practitioners to co-produce and modify policy solutions
to meet the values and specific circumstances of service
users. We examine the implications of these practices on
scientific research, outlining pragmatic responses to combine scientific evidence with governance principles.
How to maximise the use of evidence in policy
Most policy theories explore the implications of two
basic insights, namely that policymakers are limited
by bounded rationality  and share power with
many actors in complex policymaking systems [3, 10,
14]. In part, bounded rationality relates to the fact
that policymakers do not have the ability to gather
and consider all evidence relevant to policy problems.
Instead, they employ two shortcuts rational, pursuing clear goals and prioritising certain sources of information, and irrational, drawing on emotions, gut
feelings, beliefs and habits to make decisions quickly.
The key problem with many health studies is that they
focus on the first short cut. They identify the problem of
uncertainty and incomplete information, seeking to solve
it by creating hierarchies of evidence and improving the
supply of information to policymakers. They ignore the
Table 1 New insights from policy studies raise new advice and dilemmas
New advice based on such insights
New dilemmas arising from such advice
How to maximise the use of Too many studies focus on
supplying scientific evidence to
evidence in policy
reduce uncertainty; focus
instead on increasing demand
for evidence by reducing
New insight from policy studies
Successful actors reduce ambiguity by,
for example, framing issues in
manipulative ways, using emotional
How far should scientists go to persuade
policymakers to act on their evidence?
Should they be manipulative? This
strategy may be effective, but it
presents moral dilemmas and
challenges a politically effective image
of science as objective
We identify several current responses
to this dilemma
How best to understand
and act effectively within
the policy process
Successful actors take the time to
identify which responsibilities are
delegated, where the action is and
the rules of the game in each
How far should you go to defend a
hierarchy of evidence to deliver policy
Should scientists object to localism
if it undermines policies based on
RCTs? Or, should they embrace the
co-production of policy with actors
who reject their hierarchy of
We identify three main responses to
Too many studies assume that there
is a policymaking centre, making
policy via linear stages in a cycle;
focus instead on a complex multilevel system or environment
Cairney and Oliver Health Research Policy and Systems (2017) 15:35
role of manipulation and persuasion to reduce ambiguity
by establishing a dominant way to frame policy problems. The latter can determine the demand for evidence.
From such discussions, we can provide a first key message for scientific advocates, namely to recognise the
tendency of policymakers to base judgements on their
well-established beliefs and shortcuts based on their emotions and familiarity with information. On that basis,
consider how to reduce ambiguity, to persuade policymakers to frame a problem primarily in one particular
way and, therefore, to demand scientific evidence to help
solve that problem.
Persuasion or framing strategies are effective because
they appeal to the emotions and the familiar, combining
facts with emotional appeals to prompt lurches of attention;
telling simple and easily understood stories which manipulate peoples biases, apportioning praise and blame and
highlighting the moral and political value of solutions; and
recognising the importance of interpreting new scientific
evidence through the lens of the beliefs and knowledge of
Without this focus on the ways in which policymakers
understand and respond to problems, scientists will be
unable to exert influence, responding only to sudden
policymaker demand for evidence-based solutions to a
pre-defined problem [10, 1527].
However, this first message also produces the first practical or ethical dilemma how far should scientists go to
persuade policymakers to act on their evidence? This
knowledge allows us to decide how far we should go to secure influence, from the pure scientist providing evidence
with little thought for its application and the honest broker
prepared to engage with stakeholders to define policy problems , towards engaging in persuasion and/or manipulation to generate attention for problems and evidencebased solutions .
There is no definitive answer to this question. Instead,
there are factors to consider, including the trade-off
between (1) being manipulative and hyperbolic, to generate attention in the short term, and (2) maintaining an
image of objectivity, to generate strong relationships in
government based on reliability, expertise, trust and independence. Further, there are many compromise solutions,
including a strategy built on framing the implications of
evidence according to the stated beliefs of policymakers
and building up a reputation for reliability within many
Issues with existing approaches: the focus remains on
research over policy impact
In health science, many models of research impact are
built on strategies which make minimal reference to policymaking, namely identifying the research question, developing a research methodology, implementing data
Page 4 of 11
collection, analysis and synthesis, interpreting findings,
and developing research and then policy/practice recommendations. In this patrician model, the process is
owned and controlled by researchers, who then advise
or disseminate their work in the general direction of policymakers .
There is also the advocacy model, where researchers
develop policy solutions and attempt to convince policymakers to adopt them [31, 32]. Most of this literature focuses on techniques (e.g. ) rather than risks. Gilbert
 describes advocacy research as aiming to create social change, usually for excellent reasons, but involving
tactics which can lead to researchers distorting the data
(for example, giving inaccurate estimates of child abuse
statistics) or presenting overly emotive cases which can
powerfully shape media coverage (for example, on rape
cases). Advocacy can obscure and distort policy discussions but most discussions do not address this problem
or the underlying issues of power and policy processes.
A more collaborative kind of advocacy is facilitational,
in which researchers attempt to share power, responsibility and accountability for research with stakeholders. Coproduction was originally used to describe a model of
public service delivery which rested on the belief
that using a broad range of perspectives lead to better,
fairer, more useful and more used products and services
. These beliefs have transferred to the production
of knowledge through collaborative or participatory
methods, which may lead to more egalitarian policymaking, through shared responsibilities .
New collaborations between scientists and policymakers
There are many models for collaborative interactions between scientists and policymakers (e.g. ). The
James Lind Alliance  has long been active in the coproduction of research agendas between patients, clinicians and researchers; the National Institute for Health
and Clinical Excellence (NICE) has used stakeholder
groups to generate clinical and research recommendations and priorities for nearly two decades . Collaborative research practices tend to fall into two groups
using each others skills and expertise for relatively
discrete sections of the research process (collaborative)
and engaging in a whole process of equal control and
decision-making (co-productive) although these labels
are not consistently applied. Both de…
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