Working Together to Enhance the Use of Research in Policy and Practice

A growing movement around the world is uniting researchers, practitioners, and policymakers in collaborative efforts to develop and use research to tackle the most pressing social and environmental problems of our day. What’s different about these efforts is that the research studies are a product of the collaborations, not the other way around.

When a research agenda is developed in conjunction with individuals and groups who are positioned to learn from and use findings, the work may be more likely to have an impact. Traditionally, communicating research findings after studies are conducted has been the primary approach to integrating research, policy, and practice. But when studies are not designed to meet the needs of policymakers or practitioners who could potentially use that research, communication and dissemination alone can miss the mark.

A meeting of the minds

In one example of the momentum behind a shift from communication- or dissemination-focused approaches to authentic collaborations, the William T. Grant Foundation and The Pew Charitable Trusts recently brought together researchers, practitioners, funders, and others from the worlds of education, environmental policy, health, mental health, and child welfare, all of whom had in common a vision of engagement as a means of closing the gap between research and policy. Participants shared lessons gleaned from their respective sectors and positions, explored future collaborations, and began building a community of policy, practice, and research collaboration.

Although they came from different policy and practice spheres, participants discovered more similarities than differences. They agreed that researchers should engage early and often with policymakers and practitioners in order to improve social and environmental outcomes. Many shared ideas about what it means to produce research that is more likely to be used; these conversations gravitated toward dynamic ways to measure that use, such as social network analysis. They also quickly identified critical needs, such as accounting for diversity and equity among participants in engagement-based research. It was clear throughout the meeting that the group appreciated finding and collaborating with like-minded colleagues across sectors in this growing field.

Different approaches, similar goal

Our organizations, which convened this meeting, focus on different research areas, but we both have invested in strategies to build collaboration and engagement around research so that it is more useful to policymakers and practitioners.

The Pew Charitable Trusts has supported engagement-based research for close to fifteen years through its environmental research and science program, which uses expert intermediaries, or “boundary-spanners,” to facilitate engagement. One example of Pew’s commitment to engagement-based research is its Lenfest Ocean Program, which dedicates significant funding and staff time (i.e., boundary-spanners) to engaging and communicating with users of critical research on the world’s oceans, including fishery managers, nongovernmental organizations, and scientists. Because of this staff support, grantees are better able to develop policy-relevant project ideas, and Lenfest staff is able to support those researchers in building trust with users and helping them make sense of the research. Pew’s work to ensure research with greater impact led the organization to convene researchers and practitioners to understand how to measure and improve the effectiveness of their investments in these kinds of programs. This in turn is helping to guide future investments and innovation.

The William T. Grant Foundation has invested over $20 million to studies that illuminate the conditions for research use, and now specifically focuses on studies that build, identify, and test strategies for improving the use of research evidence in policy and practice. The Foundation has also sought to build knowledge of research-practice partnerships—long-term, mutually beneficial collaborations that promote the production and use of research about problems of practice. In 2011, the Foundation funded a landscape scan of research-practice partnerships (RPPs) in education, and then launched a learning community of partnerships around the country, the lessons from which became a basis for an online repository of resources for building RPPs and helped launch the National Network for Research-Practice Partnerships. At the same time, the Foundation began funding rigorous studies of partnerships to understand the conditions under which they are successful, the effectiveness of different partnership strategies, and whether certain types of partnerships are better suited to address particular types of problems or goals.

With lessons derived in part from this work, the Foundation has also developed resources that may equip the research community to better understand specific dimensions of RPP effectiveness as well as identify and employ stronger measures to assess these dimensions.

What’s next?

While these sorts of collaborative strategies show great promise for improving the relationships between research and policy (or research and practice), measuring their effectiveness can be difficult. Assessing research “use” is more complicated than measuring specific policy changes, and although there is a growing body of scholarly frameworks and indicators for measuring research use, it is scattered across sectors. This means that researchers could be duplicating efforts, and that those trying to support or manage collaborations may not be able to find the tools or frameworks they need to understand their progress and outcomes. Engagement-based approaches and the expert intermediaries who support them are not yet mainstream, so it can be challenging to find guidance and colleagues, especially across sectors.

The promise of cross-sectoral sharing and collaboration for addressing these challenges is significant. We intend to keep the momentum growing. Participants, as well as staff at Pew and the Foundation, are focused on three ways forward:

  1. Synthesize existing knowledge and address key knowledge gaps across sectors, including by reviewing the theories of action for engagement-based research through research-practice partnership and boundary-spanning activities.
  2. Develop an international, cross-sectoral community of researchers, policymakers, and practitioners working to transform the use of research evidence (#TransformURE). An initial meeting, to share ideas about and build capacity for improving the use of research in policy and practice, is planned for Spring 2021.
  3. Convene a cross-sector group of funders (environmental, health, educational, and social welfare, among others) to share effective funding ideas and practices for improving the use of research in policy and practice. This would include foundations, government agencies, and individual donors interested in supporting the use of research evidence in policy through research-practice partnerships and boundary-spanning, improved measurement of research use, and training activities.

Ultimately, no matter the sector, we believe that policy and practice is stronger when it is informed by research evidence. Although today much of the work to bring research to bear on important decisions that shape our lives and our environment is still focused largely on disseminating findings and communicating with those who will listen, we’re encouraged that a movement is growing to foster engagement and build meaningful, collaborative relationships. When those who look to research to inform their work can meaningfully interact with researchers, the consequent findings are much better poised to shape thinking and decision making. And that can mean better outcomes for kids, families, and the globe.