Policymakers are not using evidence. This study asks why.

Inaccessibility of research findings, lack of funding and poor-quality research are the driving factors limiting the utilisation of doctoral research in policymaking, according to a study in South Africa.

Researchers from the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s (UKZN) College of Health Sciences (CHS) and Great Zimbabwe University who interviewed the leadership of CHS about factors limiting utilisation of PhD knowledge in policy use also found that lack of continuity in translating research into policy, untimely publication of research findings and poor linkages between researchers and policymakers hindered the use of PhD-generated knowledge in decision-making.

Florence Damba, the lead author of the study published in Plos One, and her colleagues, argue that, despite universities in Africa heeding heightened pressure to produce “relevant and impactful research” and engage with non-academic research actors keen to find solutions to challenges, “health policies in the African region are sub-optimally informed by evidence”.

The researchers suggest that adequate funding be made available for the dissemination of research results. They also recommend greater collaboration between researchers and policymakers, and the facilitation of policymaker-researcher engagement to find best ways of using research findings to influence policy and making final research products accessible to policymakers.

In their study, the researchers found that end users were not able to access research findings from universities.

Inaccessible format

“Participants argued that research remains inaccessible to policymakers mainly because researchers are not packaging evidence in formats that can be used easily by policymakers,” the researchers said in their report.

On the other hand, the study interviewees feel that policymakers do not create time to read through university theses to extract relevant information that could inform decision-making and they, therefore, call on doctoral candidates to simplify and package their research results in a manner that can be accessed easily and understood by a policymaker.

But, even in circumstances where students were ready to make their research results available to policymakers, the researchers found that they lack “adequate funding to support high-impact research and to cover expenses related to the sharing and dissemination of research results to policymakers”.

Similarly, the study found that inadequate funds led to doctoral students using convenient sampling instead of random sampling as a way of saving money.

“Some of the projects are done in a way that should lead to saving money. l am [working on] a study right now where we did random sampling of the whole of KwaZulu-Natal. Sometimes the schools that we want to look [are so far apart that] we might have to travel 200km to get to the next school and another one will be 100km away, so that’s a lot of money to spend,” said one of the interviewees quoted in the study.

Furthermore, the study found poor-quality research was another factor inhibiting the use of doctoral research in policymaking. This, they said, was as a result of unprepared doctoral students who were not willing to do enough background reading on their topics of study interest, too few qualified supervisors and excessive pressure on supervisors to ensure successful outcomes.

“There is also a lot of pressure on supervisors to take on large numbers of students and to graduate large numbers of students … We have too many students against too few qualified supervisors. That compromises our quality,” said another interviewee quoted in the study.

Funding and support

The study calls for the allocation of more funds and new funding mechanisms to support knowledge production and dissemination.

The researchers also called on doctoral students to utilise capacity development workshops that handle integral components of research such as proposal development, mentorship, manuscript writing and theses writing, arguing that this will ensure students are well connected to all stages of their research work.

“The study established that academics are not trained in policy processes and, therefore, do not know how to influence the translation of research into policy. We, therefore, propose that researchers ... participate in policy processes to be politically minded, knowing when to produce evidence and how to get it across to the users,” wrote the authors.

They also suggested that UKZN establish a platform through the political structures of the South African Department of Health to facilitate policymaker-researcher engagement to find best ways of using research findings to influence policymaking.

The researchers, however, also called for more research into the views of policymakers regarding their use of doctoral research when formulating policies and making decisions.