Challenges and strategies of using research in policy from the perspective of the Scottish government

Rethinking Policy Impact
Publication Date

In this blog, I focus exclusively on the pragmatic. I reflect on why the issue of research and evidence in policy so problematic based on my experience as Chief Social Researcher in the Scottish Government for a number of years. My role is part-time and in practice, I devolve many responsibilities to senior researchers and other analysts across the Scottish Government.

Every year, I speak to early career academics and offer advice on how they can influence policy. My basic advice is straightforward and can be summarised as: do your research on the policy environment, build your networks, have a clear ‘offer’ and make it enticing, preferably collaborative, learn from successful colleagues and adapt your writing style. I also focus on issues of practicality: does your research consider the feasibility of delivery, the costs/benefits and alignment or not with the political stance of the government. Issues of timing are key. There are times to put ideas on the agenda and other times when your ideas simply will not attract attention. Finally, it is very rare for one piece of research to create a Eureka moment. Policy-makers are interested in bodies of work and expert advice generated throughout a career.

However, research and policy is a symbiotic relationship and it takes effort on both sides. Policy-makers are influenced by many factors, of which research is one and can often be seen to be the most difficult to encompass. The policy-making landscape is complex, with competing pressures arising from political, media and stakeholder interests often within very tight timescales. Within Government, policy-makers need capacity to engage with research; if resources are limited, the time available to engage with research will also be limited. Capability is required and internal scientists and analysts along with external advisors play a key role acting as knowledge brokers and interpreters, synthesising Scottish, UK and international research in a format that can readily be absorbed by policy-makers. As the desire for policy co-ordination grows and the government seeks to develop formal and informal structures to overcome siloed working, so too does the need for co-ordination across research agendas, across disciplines and across institutions to provide rounded assessments of the evidence base.

Expanding further on the co-ordination point, the development of a Scottish Government Chief Advisors Group is one example deriving from the Scottish COVID response. It aims to create a truly multidisciplinary advisory capacity bringing a range of scientific disciplines including the social sciences, economics and statistics together to focus on priority issues. The members of this group consist of full time civil servants and part time external expert advisors. Alongside the mainly external C-19 Advisory Group, the group played a key role in the development and implementation of the ‘4 Harms’ approach to COVID which sought to balance direct COVID Harms, other Health Harms, Social Harms and Economic Harms. Lessons may be learned from this experience that can be applied to other multi-faceted problems.

Academic and analytical leadership is necessary but not sufficient to ensure that policy is informed by research. Creating a demand for research and enhancing the ability of policy-makers to engage knowledgably, critically and creatively is also an ongoing process. A simple process adopted to deal with COVID was to hold a weekly 45 minute briefing session on the latest ‘4 Harms’ evidence, Scottish, UK and international developments. Internal analysts and scientists synthesised evidence by for all interested policy-makers and attendees were also encouraged to ask questions during the briefing session either for immediate response or for the briefing team to take away and work on for the following week. This generated huge interest, created a base level of knowledge shared across the organisation and encouraged regular interaction between experts and policy teams which fed directly into Ministerial decision-making. 

Finally, the place of evidence in policy-making will always be contested. Some academics may be concerned about challenges to their independence or impact on their reputation as thought leaders in the academic community, while some policy-makers may emphasise political or media concerns. However, the current environment in the Scottish Government post COVID is favourable to the influence of research and evidence. Working together we have the opportunity to learn and apply the insights of the previous two years to deal with our uncertain and volatile environment and the many problems it presents.      

Dr Audrey MacDougall FAcSS is Scottish Government Chief Social Researcher and Head of the Scottish Government Central Analysis Division

The RSE’s blog series offers personal views on a variety of issues. These views are not those of the RSE and are intended to offer different perspectives on a range of current issues.