Measuring the impact of social science research on policy making

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    Katie Metzler

    I’ve just listened to a very interesting panel discussion on the impact of research on public policy making, and how this can be measured. Do we have appropriate metrics to measure impact, and indeed, what is impact in this context?
    Would be interested in hearing peoples’ views…


    There are many interesting ideas from the “Knowledge Transfer” literature on impact of research influencing policy. The field is quite large, but I attached a “Guide to KT” in the Knowledge Transfer Methodology group under “Guide to Knowledge Transfer” Discussion. Generally, I’ve noticed many differents methods and strategies including “Argument Catalogues” and “Systematic Reviews” that incorporate both qualitative and quantitative research. Many approaches will now discuss “Interactive” or “Collborative” methods that incorporate various stakeholders (associated theory may include critical theory such as Jurgen Habermas’s Communicative Action and Public Sphere theory, or “Mode 2 Knowledge Production”). You can also find references to “Knowledge Brokers” as key linking agents that connect users and producers of knowledge in research to policy process.

    For sure, check out the Policy Press website; you’ll find some interesting resources there.

    Specifically, See “Using evidence: How research can inform public services”
    Sandra M. Nutley, Isabel Walter and Huw T.O. Davies

    The book explores the following:
    Explore various multidisciplinary frameworks for understanding the research use agenda;
    · consider how research use and the impact of research can be assessed;
    · summarise the empirical evidence from the education, health care, social care and criminal justice fields about how research is used and how this can be improved;
    · draw out practical issues that need to be addressed if research is to have greater impact on public services.


    No, we do not. ESRC has spent a long time trying to measure impact and has failed. The whole idea of ‘impact’ is one of those commonsense notions that don’t actually work once one starts thinking about real cases. Unfortunately (for social scientists) the impact of the idea of measuring impact has turned out to be rather high (paradoxical, ain’t it) and so all the Research Councils now want one to predict the impact that your proposed research will have before they will fund it.

    What’s wrong with the idea of impact? Well, it assumes a direct causal and one way connection between research and policy changes, while case studies show that this ‘linear model’ is a poor representation of what happens, that policy influences research as well as research influencing policy, and that the effects of research are complex interactions between the findings of many projects and many ideas and may not be apparent for years or even decades.

    For the background to my comments, see Paul Graham’s helpful and well documented answer.

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