Research for stronger health systems during and after crisis

Old thinking, new thoughts - the relationship between policymakers, researchers and other stakeholders

Saturday, 01 Dec 2012

By Helen McFarlane, Research Uptake Manager, ReBUILD Consortium, Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, UK

As someone new to this field, I found it encouraging to hear the evidence to policy and practice debate in a number of sessions at last week’s Global Symposium on Health Systems Research, but with 12 sessions directly related to supporting the use of research evidence in policymaking, I wonder, are we really listening?   

‘Evidence-based policy making’ – is certainly not a new concept (I read somewhere that you can even trace it back to the fourteenth century). And whilst its absence in practice is largely criticised, pioneers such as Florence Nightingale led the way for this thinking over a century ago. 

Over the last decade we have moved on to the more fashionable ‘evidence-informed policy making’ but it is our action that should be moving on, not the phrasing. At Beijing there were some fantastic examples of this, but we need to see more. In a session last Thursday,Supporting the use of research for policy in Africa, I listened to Bocar Amadou Kouyate, Advisor to the Ministry for Research for Health, Ministry of Health, Burkina Faso describe the relationship between policymakers and researchers as a tango, one that must be nurtured and perfected. 

I absolutely agree that early engagement with both parties is important, but placing the responsibility for research uptake purely on the relationship between researchers and policymakers is just too simplistic. There was a lively debate in the lightning session, How can research hit the mark for health policy and systems decision-making, where the passion for results was clear, but there continued to be an emphasis on policy makers needing to understand researchers and vice versa and I began to get frustrated. 

Then I heard a discussion about ‘changing our thinking’. Yes we need to be open and responsive to new ideas, but we also need to act on what we know and continue to share practice from different contexts. 

We know that policy processes are complex and simply presenting information to policymakers and expecting them to act on it is unlikely to work. We know that having a clear intent and being able to synthesise simple yet compelling stories from research findings is key. More importantly, we know that a holistic understanding of the context in which the policy is to be implemented is absolutely vital. 

So for ReBUILD, we will focus our research uptake activities in understanding the context that our researchers are operating in whilst building critical networks to support them. Armed with the learning from yesterday, a clear vision for tomorrow and power and speed of communications today, we might just make a difference. I for one, will be following the debate closely!