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Breaking silos, barriers and bubbles – why can’t research and policy work together?

We recently spent two stimulating days at HSRUK 2018. Our colourful tablecloth, quirky leaflets and coffee maker attracted a lot of great people and we asked them all the same question: "What gets in the way of research, policy and practice working together?" The good news: people not caring is not the issue.

Nonetheless, there is a range of factors that people in health services research seem to run into on a regular basis: misaligned agendas and languages, a perceived lack of time because everyone’s always busy, not knowing how to engage properly, logistical problems such as different locations and timescales, and the absence of clear logic models ahead of implementation.

Many researchers we spoke to said that they did not really know how to bring their research into practice and policy. The latter emerged as particularly opaque: as most health researchers, including myself, have not received a formal ‘policymaking 101’ during their training, identifying access points to policy and using these in an effective way poses quite a challenge. Where do I start? Who do I approach? How do I reach important decision makers?

Although academics aren’t generally known for needing an ego boost, when it comes to engaging with policy and practice, a lack of confidence seems to persist as a barrier – even a lot of incredibly experienced people we spoke to at HSRUK felt like they did not know enough to comment on the topic. Besides the notion of creating a whole new professional group that would be responsible for bridging this gap, possible solutions proposed by attendees centred around making more room for training and development, and incentivising dual careers – a path that currently still comes with a lot of hurdles.

For research to answer the questions that need to be answered, it is crucial for policymakers to signal what is needed.

A lot of it came down to bringing people together: the need to break silos and bubbles, and reach out beyond healthcare, is evident. In order for research to answer the questions that  need to be answered (which might not always be the most thrilling ones), it is crucial for policymakers to signal what is needed. There was a consensus that overcoming the much talked about differences in agendas, languages, timescales and knowledge requires collaboration and conversations. But how? Solutions given by attendees include seemingly straightforward things such as talking to practitioners and policymakers, networking, attending conferences like HSRUK and taking advantage of Twitter.

The need for a formal platform for researchers to engage with policymakers was mentioned repeatedly – some even went as far as pitching a dating app. We could draw on lessons from public engagement and, in line with increasing calls for a greater weighting of qualitative evidence in evaluation and impact, it was also suggested to use patient stories as a means to align disparate agendas and bridge gaps between research.

While we still have a long way to go, there is certainly no lack of willingness to engage. Researchers, clinicians and policymakers can only benefit from talking to each other, and it’s in everyone’s interest to work towards facilitating these conversations.

In the words of Professor Nick Black: “Problems cannot be solved by organisations on their own. We need to make space for the right conversations to occur.”

Kathrin Lauber10 July 2018