Focus on Research and Policy

Wendy Graham, University of Aberdeen, UK

“Researchers are from Venus, policy-makers are from Mars”

Using the issue of maternal mortality, (Immpact study*), Prof Graham showed that the worlds of policy-makers and researchers are very different and they keep changing. Maternal deaths are those during pregnancy and six weeks after birth; 98% of deaths are preventable, and 99% take place in the developing world. Maternal mortality is one of the UN millennium goals and is significantly off-track. Because of the urgency for change and progress around this area, it is becoming increasingly volatile.

The Immpact study worked in 8 countries to reach policy makers for national change, asking which of their major strategies they would like to be evaluated for impact. The research-policy continuum moves from research priority setting to knowledge generation and dissemination (and back) to evidence filtering and amplification, leading to policy-making processes. The evidence to policy environment is now occupied by more than researchers and policy-makers. The demand for evidence is more diverse, beyond the Ministry of Health, including the media who play a critical role in holding people to account.

Prof. Graham posed the question: What is the appropriate evaluation framework; how do we know what works? The Immpact study found that enabling environments were necessary and included working from the perspective of decision-makers; timing findings appropriately; capitalising on personal contact; and effective communication. The Immpact study didn’t reduce maternal mortality in the countries evaluated – which brings up the issue of only telling the good news.

“We need a journal of negative findings! Just because something didn’t work, doesn’t mean it should be binned. This is a very serious issue. There is no one thing that will reduce maternal mortality – you need a revised health system, there is no magic bullet. In terms of translating research into policy, knowledge brokers can be very useful,” said Prof. Graham.

*Impact: ‘Initiative for Maternal Mortality Programme Assessment’ which aims to improve the evidence base for policy makers through comprehensive evaluations of safe motherhood intervention strategies at a national and regional level.

Questions arose on whether knowledge brokers were feasible. The response is that they do exist, but there’s no one size fits all – sometimes they’re in research institutions, sometimes in NGOs. Prof. Graham commented that an evaluation platform needed to be established to see whether it will work or not. The issue of translating research to evidence in terms of maternal mortality was how to translate the findings because the answers are clear. Who to translate it and how to package it was another issue. The Canadian Health Services Research Foundation does this very well; for more information, see their website:

John Young, Overseas Development Institute

“Key findings from research on reaching policy-makers” undertook a literature review coupled with expert interviews and 7 country case studies to determine how policy makers in developing countries use evidence for policy. The review found several tensions:

  1. There is politicisation of science vs scientisation of policy
  2. Should scientists be involved in policy-making?
  3. Demand for certainty by policy-makers vs scientific uncertainty by scientists
  4. Challenge of providing specialised expertise
  5. Divergent motivations and time-frames
  6. Western vs indigenous knowledge.

The review found general dissatisfaction about the lack of using of research-based science in policy in developing countries. The major obstacles were insufficient information and information was outdated; in developed countries, information was too lengthy and general, while in developing countries, information was too minimal. Major uptake issues were perceived more in the south than the north. The more technical ministries valued scientific information, compared to the more general ministries.

Worldwide, 13% of people thought scientists should only provide research findings, 39% thought they should provide opinions and advocate policy positions, whereas 41% thought they should provide both. In terms of the most effective mediators of scientific information, the most effective were thought to be scientific organisations, while the least effective were thought to be the media (19%) and corporate business. The media were regarded as useful for getting issues on the table, but not in terms of the detail. “What is key to remember is that everything is highly context-specific; no one size fits all,” said John Young.

The study recommended that the role of intermediaries should be promoted; these should be identified and disseminate information and represent scientists or policy makers. “If there is to be more investment in these outcomes, there is a need to measure the impact for direct policy change as well as conceptual influence,” he said.

For more information: see (or contact Nicola Jones at

Questions included whether knowledge intermediaries and brokers were the same thing (they are), and who funds them (A mix of public/private and subscriptions if it’s a networking organisation). There is a big debate on whether they should spend more on this issue, which will impact negatively on research budgets. Another question dealt with the role of professional associations, who were generally found to impede policy implementation. In terms of translating policy into action and why some resulted in change and other did not, Young responded that this was often due to politics and drivers of change. “Policy processes are political and we delude ourselves if we think that evidence plays a significant role. There are lots of examples of appalling policies which were not evidence-based, and the north is not much better at this than the south,” he concluded.

Mammusa Rantsoti-Lekoa – Africa Centre

“Bridging the gap between research and policy-making”

There is a clear gap between policy and research, and the Africa Centre wanted to bridge that gap. The position of policy liaison officer was created and is responsible for familiarising policy makers with data from the centre relevant to their policy and programme needs, and to work with Centre scientists to effectively present data to service providers and policy-makers. It is very challenging to get a platform for this. The work also involves relationship-building with key stakeholders (government, NGOs, civil society) and proactively promoting the value of the Centre’s work for policy-makers. This is achieved by means of scientific meetings, policy forums, etc.

New initiatives include developing a prevention research network. Successes include the vertical transmission study; challenges include stimulating researchers’ interest, time constraints and working alone. The question is whether to be independent or to work within an institution. Who would fund this intermediary body?

Sheila Ochugboju – Global Women Inventors and Innovators Network, UK

“From idea to market: brokering knowledge to promote invention and innovation.”

In the late 1990s, the British Government declared a moratorium on GMO research due to volatile public pressure. This led the establishment of a programme on promoting the public’s understanding of science, where scientists received training in science communication. This initiative effectively caused a career change for many people including Dr Ochugboju who had been conducting post-doctoral studies on plant viruses.

“This wave of public feeling made us look at our science in a different perspective,” she said, explaining that the British Council had invited her to come to South Africa to speak to school children about being a science role model which led to her working with international development work. In the knowledge brokering role, roles are clearly defined and science education focused on meeting the needs of economies. “Women need to be empowered, and in the UK, the model of brokering knowledge is quite developed,” she told the session.

One of the roles the network is playing is facilitating funding. For example, IBM is putting money into South Africa, and in August the South African Women Inventors and Innovators Symposium, funded by the Minerals and Energy was launched. In October 2008, a partnership was signed with the Department of Trade and Industry to work on a Pan-African Women Inventors and Innovators initiative which will result in an international conference in June 2009 in South Africa.

“The public backlash in 1999 caused quite a few career changes, and public pressure can sometimes have more impact on policy decisions than research,” said Sheila. “Now, I work in three areas: creative science, innovation and leadership development which is all influenced by my scientific background and ability to interpret systems. I feel that every aspect of my work expresses who I am, and I am really fulfilled!” she said.

policy engagementA

Wendy Graham, Sheila Ochugboju, John Young, Bella Starling (chair) and Mmamusa Rantsoti-Lekoa


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