How can research findings influence policy on health?

26 September 2019

Stephen Aldridge is Director for Analysis and Data at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. A government economist by background, he was previously Chief Economist and then Director of the Strategy Unit in the Cabinet Office. He is a member of the advisory group for our Social and Economic Value of Health research programme. We spoke to Stephen about the programme, and how research findings can influence policy. 

Why is it so important to build and spread knowledge about the value of health to society and the economy?

Understanding that health has value over and above its impact on our personal wellbeing – for example, because it helps to improve work productivity or wider prosperity – is clearly really important when making policy decisions. 

It’s not just about how much we should spend on health care, but it helps to inform what specific interventions we should be making to improve health, on the basis that more effective interventions will improve human capital (the skills, knowledge, capacity and capability of the population) and the outcomes for society and the economy that we’re interested in.

You are part of the advisory group for the first round of grants issued through the Health Foundation's Social and Economic Value of Health research programme. Why is this programme important?

You only have to read the titles of the projects in the research programme to appreciate their potential significance. One project is looking at the relationship between childhood obesity and its impacts on human capital development; another is on health and labour market outcomes; and there’s a project looking at parental and childhood health and educational attainment. Having an understanding of, for example, the relationship between health and the labour market would enable us better to design policies to ensure both better health and better labour market outcomes. 

The researchers are using very large datasets and bringing data analytics to bear in new ways in order to really try and pin down the nature of these relationships. It’s very important to understand whether we are saying that better health leads to better labour market outcomes, or that better labour market outcomes lead to improved health. That changes what you might do in the light of the research findings. 

Whether in health or other spheres, research findings will have an impact and help to inform and improve many important decisions. However, it may take time and it may be a challenge, because sometimes evidence can be complicated or counterintuitive. 

How can policymakers find out about new research like this?

Within government departments, there are analysts like me who act as intermediaries between policymakers and academia. Personally, I try to build strong links with relevant experts in the areas on which my team is providing analytical advice, so we can help policymakers access that research. Within my department, we run seminars and host roundtables with external experts. The importance of bringing people together and sharing knowledge shouldn’t be underestimated.

There are other important intermediaries – indeed, the Health Foundation is one, with its role not just in funding research, but in making it available in ways that are accessible to policymakers. There are also the research councils, which run various activities to make sure that research findings are shared with policymakers. 

I’ve been involved in the establishment of a number of What Works centres and one of their roles is to synthesise evidence on what we know works in achieving different policy goals. There’s the Centre for Ageing Better, the Early Intervention Foundation, the Centre for Local Economic Growth, the recently established Centre for Homelessness Impact and a number of others. They’re an example of the intermediaries that exist to help channel evidence to policymakers in a clear and timely way.

What can researchers do to make the evidence they build more accessible to policymakers?

The key thing is that researchers need to think about how they present their findings clearly – and in plain English! Some of the What Works centres have developed dashboards to summarise evidence on what works in achieving different policy outcomes and which interventions are most cost-effective. 

It’s also very important for researchers to build relationships with policymakers and vice versa. I’m closely involved with the Centre for Science and Policy at the University of Cambridge. They arrange really excellent policy fellowships, which mean that civil servants and people from other sectors can meet academic researchers to discuss issues of mutual interest and to improve the sharing of knowledge. We’re all busy, but we need to redouble our efforts to make use of these types of opportunities.

How can the research community ensure the topics they study are relevant for policymakers?

My department and others have developed short documents detailing our areas of research interest and I think this type of communication is really important. 

It’s also important for policymakers and researchers to engage directly. Researchers can reach out to analysts like me in government departments, and use us as intermediaries to the policy community. The What Works centres and similar bodies – including the Health Foundation – can also facilitate connections and conversations about the topics on which it would be most useful to have more research. 

I run a series of economic and social research seminars, inviting people from academia, think tanks and elsewhere to come and talk to people in the department. Many government departments have programmes of engagement with the research community and I’d really encourage researchers to take up those opportunities.

For more information contact Stephen (stephen.aldridge@communities.gov.uk or via twitter @saldridg).

This content originally featured in our email newsletter, which explores perspectives and expert opinion on a different health or health care topic each month.

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