Transforming how we invest in research
Now is the time to transform how we invest in research
Annette Boaz and Kathryn Oliver argue that the London Research and Policy Partnership (LRaPP) is part of a new generation of research policy partnerships that builds on early experiments, but also seeks to go beyond them.
A large amount of research funding is allocated each year. UK Research & Innovation (UKRI) alone has an annual budget of £7.9 billion, yet there is little attention given to whether the investment generates useful research or what could be done to make the most of it. How can investment in research be optimised to support social change and policy improvement? One approach is to look at interventions to support the production of more useful and usable research. The Transforming Evidence initiative aims to bring the international and interdisciplinary scholarship on this topic together. We know there is a complex, non-linear relationship between research and policy and the role of politics (French 2019), with a growing interest in approaches that build stronger links between those who produce research, those who use research and those who are the intended beneficiaries of research (Metz et al 2019). Increasing engagement between the producers and potential users of science across its life-course may improve research quality, research utility, equity and propriety – and improving engagement features strongly in recent policy documents, including the Economic & Social Research Council Strategic Delivery Plan (2022: 14).
Could more partnerships between research and policy be a potential way forward?
Research-practice partnerships (RPPs) are a promising new approach, which offer a different way of producing and mobilising research. Unlike other forms of collaborative or co-productive research, RPPs typically involve the establishment of long-term partnerships between people who traditionally produce research and those who provide and access services via a supportive infrastructure including direct resourcing. Often, the ‘coproduction’ element of projects is squeezed into the very start, or into existing or minor elements of research projects. In RPPs, and as indicated as a key factor for success in the literature, the partnership itself becomes a focus for work, a legitimate site of investment, and the recipient of resources which enable genuine collaborative work. The partnerships engage in a range of activities including capacity building, making use of existing research and data and producing new research. They also build trust and mutual understanding to support the use of research over time.
While there has been a long tradition of partnership working between policy researchers and officials in the UK, there have been few rigorous studies about which approaches work best to promote effective collaboration or consequential use of evidence. Little is known about how different approaches work across sectors, policy settings, or problems. Existing policy-level partnership initiatives, such as LRaPP and the N8 Policing Research Partnership tend to be unevaluated. There are also some historical examples such as the Warwick University Local Government Research Consortium, although again there is little published learning. It seems likely that while some challenges are shared between practice and policy contexts, (timing, resource, turnover of staff, different priorities) some will be different at a policy level. We anticipate these including differences in power dynamics, concerns about maintaining academic distance from policy, a less diverse pool of experts who routinely engage with decision-makers, a complex policy machinery which is poorly understood, and slow procurement procedures. Given the complexity of managing multiple relationships and the political nature of evidence use, it is important to develop robust evidence to guide effective approaches to support the sustainability of partnerships or the wider spread and adoption of the partnership-based approaches.
We would be keen to know more about existing experiences of forging partnerships between research and policy in the UK and internationally. If you have a partnership experience – good, bad or ugly – please get in touch.