Present research clearly to reach policymakers, academic says

Jonathan Shepherd, Cardiff medical scholar and ‘What Works’ pioneer, urges researchers to keep it brief and abandon obfuscation

January 8, 2015

Source: Cardiff University

In brief: Jonathan Shepherd said ‘short, accessible formats’ suited social media

Academics’ habit of wrapping their research findings in caveats leaves policymakers and frontline workers drowning in “obfuscation, confusion and uncertainty”, a leading medical scholar has said.

Jonathan Shepherd, a Cardiff University surgeon at the forefront of a drive to encourage evidence-based policymaking in government, warns that the “obscure” style in which much research is presented reduces the likelihood of its recommendations being implemented.

In a report published last year, Professor Shepherd calls for evidence on issues as diverse as crime reduction and education to be published in “short, accessible formats”.

The conclusions reflect his experience on both sides of the divide between research and practice. As well as being professor of oral and maxillofacial surgery at Cardiff, he is director of its violence and society research group, and now advises the Cabinet Office and Home Office.

Having noticed how many of his own patients had been assaulted, he was the first person to highlight the significant discrepancy between the levels of violence detailed in UK police data and the much higher levels reflected in accident and emergency admission statistics.

Professor Shepherd’s report, How to Achieve More Effective Services: The Evidence Ecosystem, argues that policymakers and practitioners often do not have the time to engage with complex primary research.

“A great deal of research is presented in an obscure style and sometimes with as much emphasis on research caveats as on the main findings and their policy implications,” he says, in a chapter co-authored with PhD student Charlotte Heales.

“This tendency to caveat and qualify findings is important from an academic perspective and, indeed, can be helpful when policymakers are trying to create nuanced and context-based policy. But for most policymakers, commissioners and practitioners the obfuscation, confusion and the uncertainty this generates can significantly reduce the chances of implementation.”

Professor Shepherd says extensive use of social media in the public sector reflects the “urgent need” for a “targeted approach to dissemination” in “short, accessible formats”.

“Evidence that comes in indigestible, exhaustive forms or that does not address the problems faced by practitioners and commissioners does more harm than good because it diverts attention from useful evidence, generates scepticism about all evidence and demotivates commissioners and providers alike,” he says.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, Professor Shepherd contrasted the wide medical readership of the British Medical Journal and The Lancet, which often provide structured abstracts of articles, with the dearth of “practitioner-facing” journals in other social policy fields.

New professional bodies for careers such as policing and teaching have a key role to play in translating evidence, he added.

Other recommendations in the report include increased use of randomised and “quasi-experimental” trials to assess policy, and for research assistants in commissioning teams to be trained to search for and summarise evidence for colleagues.

Some of Professor Shepherd’s ideas are already being implemented as part of the What Works Network, a strategy for improved government services that has been heavily influenced by his work.

Professor Shepherd said the approach would pay dividends. “We want to be sure we are investing our hard-earned taxpayers’ money in things that work,” he said.

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