How can scientists engage with the policy world?

6 March 2020


Reported by Kate McNeil, CSaP Communications Coordinator

How do government, public policy development processes, and science interact? How can scientists engage with the policy world? How do politics, evidence and the logistics of delivery play into policymaking decisions?

Earlier this week, a gathering of policy advisers and academics met with postdoctoral researchers from the Borysiewicz Biomedical Sciences and Canada Fellowship schemes to explore these questions which lie at the heart of the science-policy interface.

Leading the session, Dr Steven Wooding encouraged attendees to reflect on sources of evidence, the way we know things, and the types of evidence which can prove valuable in policy discussions. Here, values and beliefs, experiential knowing, theoretical knowin, and empirical knowing were all highlighted as factors which can influence policy making processes. For those seeking to influence policy, he suggested that you need to understand path dependencies; to figure out why we are where we are; and to decide whether you want to be a disinterested expert who shares information neutrally, or a passionate advocate with opinions of your own.

Exploring why policy development isn’t driven by technocratic approaches driven solely by evidence, Dr Wooding suggested that policy makers’ time is limited, and that the evidence available in many policymaking areas is generally not context-free or value-free. Instead, there is a lack of incontestable evidence in most areas of policy, and a lack of synthesis can be combined with the presence of influential stakeholders. Here, cycle helmet policies are a great example of an area where policies are informed by a complex evidence base which does not point to any one policy as being “correct”. Wearing cycle helmets reduces injuries for cyclists, but cyclists wearing helmets are given less space by cars on the road. Moreover, while cycling has major health benefits, fewer people will cycle if helmets are mandatory. Based on this evidence, Dr Wooding asks, should cycle helmets be made mandatory? Different jurisdictions have reached different conclusions, based on their judgements of the evidence, as well as their policy makers’ assessments of the logistical and political ramifications.

When feeding evidence into policy making processes, Dr Wooding suggests that mixed method designs, or a combination of quantitative and qualitative evidence, can be most helpful. While quantitative research tells you how often something happens, qualitative research can shed more light onto the why and how of research outcomes.

While there are also other forms of hierarchies of evidence – where meta-analysis and systematic reviews are highly desirable – Dr Wooding emphasised that those seeking to influence or make policy should not make decisions about the value of evidence based solely on the design and methods used. For example, large scale observational studies can be more powerfully convincing than small-scale randomized control trials (RCTs), even though RCTs are often treated as the gold standard of evidence in fields such as medicine. Taking a realist approach to evaluation, Dr Wooding suggests that the best evidence for evaluation research can answer the questions of “what works, for whom, in what circumstances, in what respects and why?

Later in the afternoon, Dr Wooding was joined by Dr Julian Huppert (University of Cambridge), Dr Tom Livermore (Academy of Medical Sciences) and Dr Sarion Bowers (Wellcome Sanger Institute). Their discussion focused on improving research culture, the need to invest in research in sustainable and impactful environments, transformation problems, and the challenges of deciding whether to engage in lobbying as an academic when trying to generate research impact.

The key takeaway from this panel discussion, brought to the table by Dr Huppert, was that researchers seeking to make an impact should consider coming to policy makers with solutions which touch upon the problems that the policy community has the political will to address. Echoing this, Dr Wooding suggested that scientists seeking to make an impact should never miss the opportunity to contribute evidence during a crisis.


Photo credit: Locust brain neurons, NIH Image Gallery -