Expensive research 'is wasted'

April 18, 2003

The gulf between academics and policy-makers means that much of the £1.4 billion that the government spends on research each year is wasted, Parliament's spending watchdog has warned.

The National Audit Office said in a report this week that not enough of the research commissioned by government departments to improve the delivery of services and develop policies is getting through to policy-makers.

"Research may be extremely wise and erudite but it is no use at all if policy-makers do not know about it, do not understand it or need something else," said Edward Leigh, chairman of the House of Commons' Public Accounts Committee, in response to the report.

"At almost £1.5 billion a year, we are talking about a significant amount of money. Every effort must be made to ensure that the research is always relevant and used to the full."

The NAO report, Getting the Evidence: Using Research in Policy-Making , found that across departments "it was widely acknowledged that there was a gap between what researchers produce and what policy-makers need". The report highlights six problems:

* Research results that are not easily accessible

* Research results that lack direct short-term relevance for policy

* A poor understanding of policy questions by the researchers

* The poor communication of the research results by the researchers

* A poor understanding of research results by the policy-makers

* A lack of resources for dissemination activity.

The report looked at research commissioned by the Department for International Development, which awards 71 per cent of all its research contracts to universities, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

The report found that while the government had developed ways to encourage commercial knowledge-transfer, it was failing to encourage non-commercial knowledge transfer - the process that "facilitates the uptake of research in order to improve service delivery and develop policies".

"For non-commercial research, there is also a need to help the researcher realise the social benefits of their findings," the report says. "It is especially important as policy-makers often describe reports as being inaccessible."

The NAO said that government officials too often abrogated responsibility for knowledge transfer to the researchers, while the researchers felt that the translation of their research was not their job. The departments recognised that they had to be "more proactive in facilitating the dissemination of research".

The NAO singled out id21, an internet-based dissemination service funded by the Department for International Development. "The involvement of users throughout the research process helps to create a cadre of sophisticated research users who are not only able to make effective use of the research, but can more clearly specify what their needs are," the report says.

Mr Leigh said: "It is worrying that it was a common response in the interviews with policy-makers that research did not meet their needs. I am concerned that not enough is done to propagate findings and too few people are aware of these pearls of wisdom.

"Those commissioning the research need to talk to the people on the ground to find out what the priorities are so that research is timely and useful."

Mr Leigh added: "Departments need to be more strategic in how they commission research and involve the users at an early stage. Only then will we be sure that we really are getting good value for money."

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