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Evidence-based policy – Problem 1: Getting academic research to government policy makers

This week UKAJI focuses on research impact and in particular how academic researchers can influence policy. This issue has been highlighted in a recent inquiry by Sir Stephen Sedley, who considered the scale and significance of non-publication of government-commissioned research. His report, Missing Evidence,  found that only 4 out of 24 government departments maintain a database of research they have commissioned, and government officials are forced to use Google to track down their department’s research. Sense About Science, which commissioned the inquiry, reports that ‘ghost research’ is being created: paid for but, unrecorded and unpublished, it becomes unfindable in the national archives and exists only in the memories of officials. Civil servants who gave evidence to the inquiry reported that departments spend significant time trying to find past studies that they commissioned and paid for.

Today we publish a post by Nick Hilllman, Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, on the issue of civil servants’ lack of access to research published in academic journals. On Thursday we will publish a piece by James Lloyd, Director of the Strategic Society Centre, questioning whether it is realistic for academics to expect to influence policy makers.


By Nick Hillman

A couple of months ago, I gave a speech to some early career researchers on influencing policymakers. It was a specialist event hosted by the Society for Research into Higher Education and the Office for Fair Access. But my remarks seemed to resonate as well as to encourage debate, so I tidied them up and rewrote them as an article that the Times Higher Education kindly agreed to publish.

That piece appeared on 26th May as ‘The 10 commandments for influencing policymakers’. I was expecting the usual response: a few tweets and some debate that petered out after 24 hours or so. But the response to this article was different to all the others I have written during almost 20 years as a policy wonk. Someone I have never met, who I think is a fourth-year student from Germany at the University of Cambridge, retweeted the one commandment entitled ‘Don’t assume your published work will be read’.

This focused on the lack of access that civil servants have to academic output. On the one hand, there are high paywalls that make it hard for officials to access academic articles. On the other, Whitehall does little to tackle the problem itself. As I said in the Times Higher piece, there is generally no institutional log-in for civil servants and the greenest undergraduate has infinitely better access to the latest knowledge than those who provide advice to ministers.

That tweet from @CorneliusRoemer hit a nerve, receiving 1,400 retweets and over 600 likes in under a week. Some people who retweeted it added comments of their own to say how shocked they were. Others claimed access was better in the devolved assemblies, some parts of the NHS and the odd arms-length body, like the Met Office. A few claimed I was plain wrong and that academic articles can be ordered via the libraries in government departments. Sadly, they are incorrect because, even if that were once true, the libraries have now generally disappeared due to austerity.

I am pleased the piece has had such an impact for two reasons. First, the research community spends considerable time and effort worrying about the interface between policymakers and researchers, but too little on seemingly mundane matters like whether a lowly official can even access the most relevant material when advising government ministers. We worry about whether politicians have too much power over researchers. We query whether departmental research budgets have been squeezed too much. We ask what status official research establishments should have. But we do not ask whether academic output is actually being fed in to the policymaking sausage machine as it should be.

The second reason is that we have to ask questions about access to research before we can tackle the problem. There is no easy way to solve it. I instinctively favour openness so that as many people as possible can see academic output. In all the jobs I have done, including being a History teacher, a parliamentary researcher and a special adviser, I would have benefited from having better access to academic research. Yet open-access headbangers, who want all academic research to be free for everyone in the world immediately, tend to ignore the costs of peer-review processes, editing and publishing.

I run a think tank that produces over a dozen reports a year. They are freely available to anyone who wants to see them at www.hepi.ac.uk. But that is only possible because of the funding we receive from higher education institutions and companies (including, to declare an interest, more than one publisher).

Another form of response to my Times Higher article was to point out that the era of open access allows everyone to see academic research. There is gold open access, which delivers free access to all in return for an upfront payment from the author or their institution. Having just been asked to pay almost £1,800 to make my new academic paper on the Coalition’s higher education reforms open on this basis, I know it is not always a realistic option, especially for independent researchers. There is also green open access, which allows access to a final(ish) version of the paper after a certain embargo period. Like gold, it can be made to work but it is not perfect. Neither the green nor gold routes provide a full solution for accessing work published before open access came into vogue. Sometimes a paper that came out years ago can be the most relevant one for policymaking.

At HEPI, we dipped our toe in the water of this debate last year. In a paper written by David Price and Sarah Chaytor of UCL, we argued for a National Licence Scheme, which would allow anyone sitting at a computer in the UK to access past and present academic output, through a deal between taxpayers and publishers. There was a storm in response, although it was rather confused. One chap called for our paper on the issue to be withdrawn before withdrawing his call for it to be withdrawn and then withdrawing his withdrawal of the call for it to be withdrawn. It was bemusing to watch open access advocates trying to block an idea from appearing just because they did not agree with it.

Perhaps that sums up why we need a wholly new debate in this area. I admit to uncertainty over whether the best answer is for Whitehall to pay for access to what they need, or for some form of open access to become the norm or for our National Licence proposal to be taken up. But I do know the current system in which those providing information to government ministers cannot see the latest academic output is ‘sub-optimal’ – which is civil-service speak for ‘disastrous’.

About the author:

Nick Hillman is the Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute



6 thoughts on “Evidence-based policy – Problem 1: Getting academic research to government policy makers

  1. Maybe this doesn’t quite understand the process. Evidence is presented in many government-related bodies. For example NICE – the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence bases its guidelines on a review of the academic literature. Where does the academic literature come from? Academics serve on the committee panels and they bring the papers to the table. In the UK, academics have to on government orders post their research outputs on free to access institutional repositories to be eligible for Research Excellence Framework. A good abstract should be enough for policy level anyway – the details are for front line academics and clinicians. I am not saying every decision is based on the best evidence, but rather than it is a contributing factor

    Posted by Max Barnish | July 5, 2016, 7:45 am
    • Thanks, but it is based on a decade working in Whitehall and Westminster so is an account from the frontline. Yes, there are some examples where evidence is used in the public sector, but NICE is not typical. Yes, green open access has improved things somewhat, but not all research appears this way (e.g. Government can only easily determine what happens when it has paid for the research), and so often what policymakers need is old evidence from before the open-access era. Finally, your idea that abstracts ‘should be enough’ for good policymaking is risible. Not all abstracts are good. They rarely include details of the methodology, which can be very important. They usually so short that they cannot include the things that could be of most interest to policymakers. Let’s not treat our policymakers as idiots who couldn’t cope with the evidence the way that ‘academics and clinicians’ can – if we do, we’ll get the poor and un-evidenced policies we deserve!

      Posted by Nick Hillman | August 26, 2016, 10:32 am
  2. Hi, Nick. I am glad your THE piece got the attention it deserved. The part that struck me — violently, really — was this:

    “Policymakers have no access to academic journals. There is no institutional Westminster or Whitehall log-in, so politicians and civil servants generally see less academic research than the greenest undergraduate. When I was a civil servant, my department would go into meltdown if I asked to see an academic paper, as there was no budget for the $30 cost of accessing it online. This is the reason […] why MPs recruit student interns: they bring their log-in details with them.”

    What an absolutely shocking situation.

    Regarding the “UK National Licence” proposal from last year, I’m a bit surprised to see you having a go at me after the event in this piece. But since you bring the matter up, my response gave five specific reasons why the UK Licence is a bad idea, and you didn’t at any point respond substantively to any of them. Instead, you’ve chosen to highlight a tweet that was rather obviously meant tongue-in-cheek (On further reflection I withdraw my withdrawal of the call to withdraw the UKIP Licence proposal”) and ignore the two specific reasons that I gave at that time (“1st, I worry that our allies will think less of us when they see such a proposal. It makes me ashamed.” and “2nd, I worry that other countries will see it and think “Oh, yes, WE’LL do that”: the UK (and all) will lose out.”). I also clarified at that time that I wouldn’t want to proposal to be “unpublished”, which would be misleading, but withdrawn as “found useless”. To me, that still remains the right response. If you disagree, I would like to understand why, specifically, you still think the UK National Licence is a good idea; and that means specifically addressing the four points I made in my letter.

    On the other hand, if you’d rather just forget all about the UK Licence and move on, that would be fine with me too! Your and my efforts are both better invested in a global solution.

    Posted by Mike Taylor | June 8, 2016, 9:11 am
    • As I say above ‘I admit to uncertainty’ on the issue (and always have). The National Licence scheme was, as you know, a polemical HEPI ‘yellow book’ not authored by me and, like pretty much every serious policy idea under the sun, it has advantages and drawbacks. You like to focus on what you see as its weaknesses but nowhere have you ever addressed a key strength of the proposal, which is to give people who need access to academic output in their day-to-day lives (not just civil servants but teachers & FE staff too, to take but one other example) access to previously-published research. The head-banger end of the open-access community tend to focus on arguments about new research. That’s fine (though personally I do not agree with every point made). But, as a historian and policy wonk, I’m also interested in access to old research.

      Posted by Nick Hillman | June 9, 2016, 7:24 pm
      • Thanks, Nick. You’re quite right that the proposal’s intention of extending access to all UK citizens was a positive step beyond the present situation where only a tiny elite have access. The problem is privileging the UK above other nations, buying this privilege by reinforcing the hold of legacy publishers whose goals are inimical to those of society at large, and catalysing a balkanisation of the research ecosystem. So this is a case where a good thing would be the enemy of a better one — and, worse, where getting the good thing would actively make it less likely that we’d eventually reach the solution we actually want.

        As for “the head-banger end of the open access community”: I’m not sure what you intend by that phrase, but if you mean people who want actual open access rather than a geographically limited patch-job, then I’ll claim that label proudly.

        But you are dead right that we will need solutions that address old literature as well as new.

        Posted by Mike Taylor | June 15, 2016, 9:46 am
  3. This sounds a lot like Orwell’s ‘memory hole’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memory_hole Why bother with the evidence when you can make it up as you go along? Good article though and deserves to be shared.

    Posted by phsothefacts.com | June 7, 2016, 7:02 pm

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