Dror (1984) calls policymaking “a very presumptuous activity” (p.13). Though the same might be said about research. In comparing the two activities, Edwards (2005) describes the “uneasy relationship” between research and policymaking. Whereas policymakers believe that research doesn’t concern itself with issues that are relevant to the lived realities of the studied populations and is often “driven by ideology” masked as intellectual inquiry, researchers believe that there is a lack of government interest in research and that there are roadblocks put in place by policymakers to make research more difficult to carry out. Furthermore, Edwards describes a general anti-intellectualism embraced by policymakers, in that they are wary about critical analysis because it could make certain policies embarrassing or irrelevant. Similarly, researchers note that there is a lack of incentives for researchers to create policy-relevant research. To Edwards (2005), all of this bickering illustrates two distinct cultures, but more significantly, two distinct ways of communicating.
Stone (as cited in Edwards, 2005) outlines twelve perspectives that encompass the many reasons that there is a gap between research and policy. Though all of Stone’s supply side, demand side, and socio-cultural factors are insightful and accurate, the ones that I see as being the most striking are:
- Comprehension: Researchers don’t understand what the policy process is and how research fits into the policy process.
- Communication: Researchers don’t have the adequate tools to convey messages about their research to policymakers.
- Anti-intellectualism in government: Government ideology is driven by an inherent distrust in using pure science to base policy decisions.
- Politicization of research: Researchers and policymakers are not viewed as being objective, but rather present information and/or make decisions based on ideology.
Dror’s (1984) concept of “fuzzy gambling” challenges some of these above factors, with policymaking being a process of unknowable, and constantly changing “rules of the game” (p.15). There is an assumption that research is a yes/no or true/false process. But, Dror (1984) suggests that it is more of a “multi-valued” logic. By viewing research and policymaking through this lens, research and policymaking become more open to dialogue between one another, because they understand that it’s not an all-or-nothing process.
Building upon the policy gambling perspective, Dror (1984) suggests that policy scientists broaden their methodologies, including methodologies “capable of handling irreducible uncertainty, including qualitative uncertainty with inability to specify qualitatively main alternative possible futures” (p.16). Social workers work with qualitative data all the time, in listening to clients’ situations and when conveying these situations through advocacy efforts in attempts to persuade colleagues and government bodies. Edwards (2005) mentions a valuable qualitative methodology, which bridges research and policy: the case study. Edwards notes: “To determine more systematically what works when, there and how, ideally calls for case studies designed to illustrate the diverse ways in which research can connect to policy” (p. 71). Qualitative research methods are an important addition to the policymakers’ toolbox, for they can persuade and convince in a way that quantitative data alone cannot. For example, the United Nation’s Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary General for Children in Armed Conflict has been consistently monitoring the six grave violations (killing and maiming of children; recruitment and use of child soldiers; rape and other forms of sexual violence against children; abduction of children; attacks against schools and hospitals; denial of humanitarian access to children) against children during armed conflict. In the gathering of evidence, the UN has solely relied upon qualitative data, which has made quite an impact on the depth of the problem. Nevertheless, the scope of the problem has yet to be understood, and therefore, efforts are being made to supplement the qualitative data with quantitative methods, both of which provide breadth and depth.
Perhaps the divide between research and policy is not so dichotomous. Aren’t researchers always asking themselves, How can our work be relevant and useful? Or is this an idealistic or naïve perspective of research? As a humanist science, social work researchers should be constantly thinking about their work’s impact on practice and policy. For example, I worked as the program manager for the Care and Protection of Children in Crisis-Affected Countries (CPC) Initiative (www.cpclearningnetwork.org), which sought to create a global network of researchers, practitioners, and policymakers to collaborate on research projects to develop new methodologies for child protection in crisis-affected settings. This culminated in the Child Protection Action Summit, which gathered these figures for a four-day meeting to discuss ways that international child protection research could be relevant to policy, and vice versa. Edwards (2005) notes that even though the literature may suggest that if researchers and policymakers work closely together then there should be good policy outcomes, this might not be true in all circumstances, because there are multiple factors at play. For what didn’t work with CPC was what Edwards noted was most important for the success of bridging the divide. She notes: “The degree to which research influences policy often depends on individuals building relationships of mutual trust and respect, rather than on an ongoing and sustained discourse between governments and researchers” (p.73). CPC conducted the Child Protection Summit, holding conversations with the goal of creating common research priorities. However, over one year later, these conversations are no longer taking place. Meetings are currently happening with researchers and practitioners determining the research agenda, with policymakers at the receiving line of research several years after the major decisions have been made. Why can’t we include policymakers in the “ongoing and sustained discourse”, starting from the research proposal and moving forward? We know that it shouldn’t be such a dichotomy, but rather a partnership. Nevertheless, we still don’t know how to effectively bridge the divide for effective partnerships between research and policy.
Dror, Y. (1984). Perspectives on public policy: On becoming more of a policy scientist. Policy Studies Review, 4(1), 13-21.
Edwards, M. (2005). Social science research and public policy: Narrowing the divide. Australian Journal of Public Administration, 64(1), 68-74.