Overview of change
The importance of using research evidence to inform policy-making has long been recognised in both government and Parliament.1–3 Evidence-informed policy-making operates in a complex landscape of stakeholders from numerous sectors, and it is supported by well-established networks such as the What Works Centres or the Government’s Chief Science Adviser Network.4,5 In recent years, the UK Research Excellence Framework (REF) has prioritised impact (including policy impact) for Higher Education Institutions and researchers, driving them to proactively engage in policy-making and leading to the creation of initiatives to strengthen the links between universities and public policy, including at the local government level.6–10 The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the demand and gathering of research evidence to inform policy-making, raising public awareness about its role. However, it has also exposed its limitations, including the need for better understanding of different research evidence sources and for more transparency in their use.
Challenges and opportunities
The research community’s response to COVID-19 has been characterised by cross-disciplinary studies, international collaborations and information sharing at unprecedented pace, supported by newly allocated funding.11–13 This shared a number of similarities with responses to previous public health emergencies, such as the 2002–2003 SARS epidemic, the 2009 influenza A(H1N1) pandemic and the 2014 outbreak of Ebolavirus in West Africa.14,15 The COVID-19 pandemic has led to faster publication timelines and an increase in the number of pre-prints available; accelerating the movement towards open access, with research outcomes available at no cost to the reader.16 Importantly, the higher demand for research evidence has led to an increasing range of networks, resources and focal points for evidence syntheses targeted at policy-makers, such as the Economics Observatory, the International Public Policy Observatory (IPPO) and POST’s COVID-19 Rapid Responses.17–21 The role of research evidence in policy-making has been the focus of a series of select committee inquiries and has increasingly gained public awareness, increasing the scrutiny of the UK Government’s use of research evidence.20,26–28 To identify research evidence gaps likely to be most useful in the medium to long-term and achieve a better alignment of research with national policy priorities, the UK Government published ‘Rebuilding a Resilient Britain’ in February 2021. This examines the previously defined Areas of Research Interest (ARIs, documents outlining the most important research questions for each government department) to identify cross-cutting themes and provide a platform for interactions between departments and researchers.22–25
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted a series of existing challenges in evidence-informed policy-making. These include the need to recognise and understand the strengths and limitations of different sorts of evidence (including their underlying uncertainties and the mismatching timelines of research and policy); the importance of skills and experience within different levels of government to be able to use research and data effectively; and the need for accessible research evidence synthesis that is timely, up to date and written for policy-makers.29–32 Some experts also highlight the need for frameworks to set standards for the quality of evidence used in policy-making and to refer to when research evidence is limited or emerging, as in the case of COVID-19.33 The extent to which research evidence is subsequently used in policy-making varies by discipline and department and its impact on policy is not always clear.34,35 Research may not be taken into account by policy-makers for a range of legitimate reasons, be a result of inadequate processes to develop evidence-based policy, or due to mismatched or mistimed research and policy priorities.3,36–38 Greater transparency about what the evidence is, its quality and how it has been used by government (central, devolved and regional), is widely seen as critical for policy-making, implementation and subsequent evaluation.3,39,32
The impact of how research has fed into policy-making during the COVID-19 pandemic is still unknown. 40,41
Key questions for Parliament
- What lessons have been learnt from the use of research evidence in government and Parliament in response to the COVID-19 pandemic?
- How might lessons learnt and good practice in research evidence use by public bodies be shared between them?
- How might advances made in commissioning, developing and using research evidence through the pandemic be applied in the future to long-term societal challenges, such as climate change and ageing of the population?
- How might Parliament reflect on and enhance its own research evidence use in scrutiny, legislation and debate?
- How might Parliament scrutinise the UK Government’s efforts in matching research priorities and outputs (including the Government’s Areas of Research Interest and its activities to address them) against policy-makers’ needs?
- How might Parliament challenge the UK Government on their processes and practices to implement evidence-informed policy-making more effectively, and evaluate the results of Government policies?
- What are the areas of policy where more or different types of research are required? How can this need be communicated effectively to funders, institutions and researchers?
Likelihood and impact
High impact/likelihood, impacts being felt now.