GILBERTO ESPARZA, Plantas autofotosinthéticas, 2013–2014 (detail). Courtesy the artist. Photo by Dario Lasagni.

The Social Side of Evidence-Based Policy

To Support Evidence-Based Policymaking, Bring Researchers and Policymakers Together,” by D. Max Crowley and J. Taylor Scott (Issues, Winter 2023), captures a simple truth: getting scientific evidence used in policy is about building relationships of trust between researchers and policymakers—the social side of evidence use. While the idea may seem obvious, it challenges prevailing notions of evidence-based policymaking, which typically rest on a logic akin to “if we build it, they will come.” In fact, the idea that producing high-quality evidence ensures its use is demonstrably false. Even when evidence is timely, relevant, and accessible, and even after researchers have filed their rigorous findings in a clearinghouse, the gap between evidence production and evidence use remains wide.

But how to build such relationships of trust? More than a decade of findings from research supported by the William T. Grant Foundation demonstrates the need for an infrastructure that supports evidence use. Such an infrastructure may involve new roles for staff within policy organizations to engage with research and researchers, as well as provision of resources that build their capacity to do so. For researchers, this infrastructure may involve committing to ongoing, mutual engagement with policymakers, in contrast with the traditional role of conveying written results or presenting findings without necessarily prioritizing policymakers’ concerns. Intermediary organizations such as funders and advocacy groups can play a key role in advancing the two-way streets through which researchers and policymakers can forge closer, more productive relationships.

More than a decade of findings from research supported by the William T. Grant Foundation demonstrates the need for an infrastructure that supports evidence use.

Research-practice partnerships, which consist of sustained, formalized relationships between researchers and practitioners or policymakers, are one way to create and reinforce the infrastructure for supporting relationships that advance evidence use. Such partnerships are especially common in education, where they often bring together universities and school districts or state education agencies to collaborate on developing research agendas, communicating findings, and interpreting evidence.

Crowley and Scott have demonstrated an innovative approach to creating relationships between researchers and policymakers, one that is well suited to deliberative bodies such as the US Congress, but which could also apply to administrative offices. In the Research-to-Policy Collaboration model the authors describe, the Evidence-to-Impact Collaborative operates as an intermediary, or broker, that brings together researchers and congressional staff in structured relationships to create opportunities for development of trust. These relationships are mutually beneficial: they build policymakers’ capacity to access and interpret evidence and allow for researchers to learn how to interact effectively with policymakers. Thanks to their unique, doubly randomized research design (i.e., both policymakers and researchers were randomized to treatment and control groups), Crowley and Scott are able to demonstrate that the Research-to-Policy Collaboration model has benefits on both sides.

It is past time to move beyond the idea that the key to research use is producing high-quality, timely, relevant, and accessible evidence. These qualities are important, but as Crowley and Scott have shown, the chances of use are greatly enhanced when research findings are examined in the context of a trusting relationship between researchers and policymakers, fortified by the intermediaries who bring them together.


William T. Grant Foundation

Cite this Article

“The Social Side of Evidence-Based Policy.” Issues in Science and Technology 39, no. 3 (Spring 2023).

Vol. XXXIX, No. 3, Spring 2023