"Further Research is Needed!"
The phrase ‘further research is needed’ is often found in both research articles and in policymaking, where the quest for more ‘evidence’ has become a mantra. But is research really lacking, or can there be other forces behind policymakers’ request for more research?
Why ask for more research?
The motivations behind requesting more research in policymaking processes are many. Less noble or cynical motives include asking for more research to postpone decisions or hoping that later research will come to conclusions that are more in line with own interests. Sometimes more research is requested to delegitimize existing knowledge, as was the case with much tobacco research. Requesting research can also have symbolic effects, by signalizing vigour and that one takes knowledge seriously.
The need for ‘further research’ is perhaps more often driven by the potential problem-solving or instrumental contributions of research to policymaking. Research is expected to contribute to more informed and rational decisions. It can propose means and measures to fulfill the goals set by policymakers and provide a range of possible options to choose from in decision-making processes. Research can help to explain the causes and drivers of societal issues, and thus help to develop more accurate interventions and point out unintended consequences of policies. One example is found in the recently published report of the Stoltenberg-commission on gender differences in school performance and education (NOU 2019:3). The commission concludes that the causes of such differences are not yet resolved, and further research is therefore needed.
Research is expected to contribute to more informed and rational decisions.
The unread articles
But may the demand for more research also stem from not knowing the research that already exists? As the volume of information from research increases, the challenge of keeping up to date on research findings becomes greater. This is a challenge for researchers, but even more for policy makers with little time left to familiarize themselves with developments in research. A recent survey by Taran Thune (2019) suggest that policymakers seldom seek out research via formal channels, such as research databases. Rather, they prefer informal channels, including googling and asking colleagues to get access to research.
Other surveys into the uses of research in policy making, suggest that it is only a minimal fraction of research that ends up being cited in policy documents. For example, one study found that less that 0,5% of the papers published in different subject categories in the Web of Science were mentioned at least once in policy-related documents (Haunschild and Bornmann, 2017).
Tracing the impacts of research – or not
The seemingly weak link between research being done and research being used is one backdrop to the rise of the ‘impact agenda’, which has been launched to address the contribution of research to society. The focus is on highlighting the societal benefits of research in contrast to academic impact, which was previously the dominant concern of research funders. Although the concept of societal impact is fairly new, research on the uptake and uses of research in society still goes back decades.
One body of previous research blames the apparently weak uptake of research on the differences between the spheres of research and policymaking, outlining them as separate communities, unable to communicate with each other. A milder version of this hypothesis suggests that knowledge needs translation in order to become relevant to users. In other words - the quest for further research could be interpreted as a quest for more relevant or brokered knowledge.
The quest for further research could be interpreted as a quest for more relevant or brokered knowledge.
However, the seemingly weak link between research and policymaking can be a result of research having an impact in diffuse and incremental ways. One central insight of previous research on impact, is that research often contributes in non-linear ways. Research and policies are shaped and reshaped by each other through repeated interactions and institutional arrangements suspending the boundaries between research and policies.
Impact takes time
An example of the latter is the introduction of the fiscal rule in Norway which states that that a maximum of 3% of the Government Pension Fund’s value should be allocated to the yearly government budget. The history of the fiscal rule and the pension fund can be written as a story about bureaucratic flair and political foresight, when a group of economists in the Ministry of Finance secretly prepared the guidelines for future economic policy adopted in White paper 29 (2000-2001) in 2001. The work was initiated and implemented by the bureaucratic elite in the Ministry of Finance in 2000 with support from the political leadership, including prime minister Jens Stoltenberg, who presented the fiscal rule to the public.
But this is also a story about how economic research made an impact on Norwegian monetary policy and the management of the petroleum wealth. The fiscal rule builds on a large body of economic research on the benefits of long-term policy rules, of which the paper “Rules Rather than Discretion: The Inconsistency of Optimal Plans” by Finn E. Kydland and Edward C. Prescott is regarded as a key contribution.
This paper was central when Kydland and Prescott received the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2004. The paper argues that it can be better for politicians to be tied to the mast - by following regular policy rules - rather than manoeuvring freely from day to day.
The paper was published in 1977, but it took decades before this insight became part of Norwegian public policy in the form of the fiscal rule. The fiscal rule can be seen as an outcome of long-term interactions between academic economists and bureaucrats in the Ministry of finance. The reports of the public commissions preceding the establishment of the pension fund include tails of attachments to economic research. But a better interpretation could be that the impact of the research was even more a result of competent policymakers, who were able to make use of and apply insights of research that was produced in an entirely different context.
[...] the impact of the research was even more a result of competent policymakers, who were able to make use of and apply insights of research produced in an entirely different context.
Further research on impact is needed!
One conclusion to be drawn from the discussion above is (surprise!) that further research on impact is needed, but also that we should focus on the capacity of users to make use of and request further research. This activity is now in the pipeline. A reframing of the issue from the extent to which research is used to characteristics of the process of use is required.
In OSIRIS we examine the processes through which research makes an impact in society. Rather than to look exclusively on the research side of impact, as in the majority of earlier work, we focus on the user perspective. Our primary interest is to better understand under which conditions research is put into use in industry, health and care, policymaking and other contexts.
This blog post was first published in Teknovatøren #17: Interdisciplinarity in the Age of Uncertainty.
On the OSIRIS blog the members of the project team write about impact of research as our research on this topic progresses.
We aim for a collection of posts that represent preliminary and conceptual findings and ideas, discussions from meetings and seminars, shorter analyses of empirical data and brief summaries of the vast literature on impact. Some of the posts will be shared with the Impact Blog at the London School of Economics, the most comprehensive web page devoted to this topic and a great source of interesting ideas about many topics within science policy and science in practice.
The blog is also open for contributions from people outside of the OSIRIS team. Send us an email if you have a text that would fit into the blog.