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Written Evidence Submitted by

David Gough, Professor of Evidence Informed Policy and Practice, EPPI-Centre, Social Research Institute, University College London

(C190097)

 

Executive summary

This submission addresses Terms of Reference:  6. The mechanisms for communication of scientific evidence internationally, within national governments and with the public.

 

There have been many critiques of government evidence advice used for the Covid-19 epidemic. The submission argues that the adequacy of the advice system requires: (i) an analysis of its aims, structures, processes and methods; and (ii) the use of ‘research on research use’ to appraise and develop these systems.

 

EPPI-Centre, UCL

I am an academic and Director of the EPPI-Centre at University College London.  The EPPI-Centre is a specialist centre for:

  1. developing methods for the systematic mapping and synthesis of research evidence. We currently undertake a living (continually updated) map of the research on Covid-19 for the Department of Health and Social Care.
  2. Research on research use: the study of how research is made use of in practice.

 

Introduction

The current pandemic has highlighted the important role of research to inform policy making. There have been many opinion pieces in the media critiquing both the science advice and its use in practice. The aim of the submission is to propose a more systematic approach to the analysis of the appropriateness of these advice systems.

 

How research evidence informs policy making is itself a topic of research study – ‘research on research use’ or the ‘science of using science’. This can provide such a systematic basis for studying and developing the current systems.

 

  1. Governance systems and structures

There are a wide range of structures, processes and rules for identification, synthesis and interpretation of evidence in UK policy making. These include, for example, think tanks, What Works Centres, policy analysts, departmental research programmes, POST, enquiries by Parliamentary Select Committees, civil service posts such as the CSO, and science advisory committees.  Health is unusual in having a more integrated research and policy and practice system.

 

  1. Specialist topic areas of science advisers

There are many types of evidence that might be relevant to policy making in response to a global pandemic. This creates issues for the selection of evidence topics. There have been critiques of the UK science advice system for not giving enough attention, at least initially, to public health, engineering, economics, and data on the seemingly effective precautionary strategies of some countries in the Far East. This raises issues of how topics are selected and by whom. To what extent is the topic focus driven by policy questions and how much by the scientific advice already available in the committees?

 

  1. Science adviser roles and skills

The current discussions in relation to Covid-19 talk about science advice in terms of scientific experts providing evidence and advice in order to describe the size and nature of the problem and to estimate the relative impact of many possible interventions. This includes the many uncertainties and assumptions inherent in such advice.

 

Although ‘science advice’ sounds straightforward it can contain a number of different roles and responsibilities in the identification and use of evidence. For example, do all science advisers have the skills for the different roles of?:

 

 

4. Identification and selection of science advisers

Even within topic areas science advisers are selected in some way.  This raises questions about:

 

 

Some of the science advisers seem to write academic papers together which suggests that personal recommendations may be a factor, though this may also reduce diversity of perspectives and maybe skills too.

 

5. Structure and functioning

A further issue is the ways in which the committees function and the relationship between them. For example:

 

6. Relative lack of study of this (except health research systems)

As previously mentioned, the process by which research evidence is used is a topic of social science research that can be applied to all of the issues discussed above. It is in a sense a unique form of social science as it applies to all of the other academic disciplines.

 

Initially the emphasis of such ‘research on research use’ was rather production or ‘push’ focused’. A rather linear process from research to its use was assumed. Now research use is seen as more of a dynamic two way process where demand or ‘pull’ for research as well as ‘push from already existing research (as in Figure 1).

 

 

Despite this, ‘research on research use’ is still a relatively undeveloped area of study. ESRC,  for example, invests significant sums on initiatives for increasing the use of research (such as pathways to impact, secondments to government departments, fellows to support government departments’ Areas of Research Interest, What Works Centres). Outisde health, however, there seems to be little investment in the study of the processes and effectiveness of such initiatives or in the study of evidence use more generally.

 

In terms of global outbreaks of disease, the following topics are highly relevant:

 

 

Recommendations

Illustrative references

 

 

 

(July 2020)

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