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28 April 2017
Part I: Research Uptake Policy series – tensions between researchers, policy analysts and politicians Print
Wednesday, 30 April 2014 12:25

Dr Sara Grobbelaar, a Researcher at CREST, considers a range of authors’ views and explanations for the often troubled relationship between policy makers and researchers, and reviews a few suggestions on how to overcome some of these problems.

The first of this four-part blog series on Research to Policy begins by pulling focus on Research Uptake tensions, and considering the main stakeholders through a narrower lens. What is often at the root of many inter-relationship tensions? Differing perspectives and expectations.

“There is often an uneasy relationship between researchers and policy practitioners. Each looks at the world through different coloured lenses. Each has different perspectives on what the problem is, and unrealistic expectations” (Edwards, 2005)

Arguably the most well-known text for describing this situation is by Caplan (1979)who coined the term “the two-communities; a metaphor for that describes and explains the cultural divide between researchers and policy analysts as well as policy makers.

Edwards (2005)provides a very useful analysis on the mismatch between the nature of the questions to be addressed and academic conventions.  She concludes that research for policy questions are often defined by those outside academia and that these questions also very seldom fall in a specific discipline.

A typology of the gaps between researchers and policy analysts/makers
We have developed a typology of the gaps between the communities drawing on Livny, E., Mehendale, A. & Vanags (2006), Stone  (2001); and Edwards (2005)which aims to identify a range of conceptualisations of the research-policy dynamic: 



Overcoming these issues

“There is often an uneasy relationship between researchers and policy practitioners.
Each looks at the world through different coloured lenses.
Each has different perspectives on what the problem is, and unrealistic expectations” (Edwards, 2005)

The literature outlines a range of mechanisms through which the gaps outlined above could be ameliorated. We consider some of these measures in this section.

Bowen (2005)provides a useful framework for the development of a research uptake pathway. He considers a range of factors that need to be considered to ensure that the uptake pathway is well-conceived.

Considering this from a supply-side situation, the researcher should ensure that recognition is given to the various types of evidence and how that is used in policy making. Here Bowen suggests that one does not only recognise the “hard facts” such as research evidence in the form of empirical data, time-series analysis or observations. There is also knowledge of the problem and how it is perceived by the users of the information, the various views  held by users, and the political agenda.

This links up with the context and consideration of the capacities required for implementation of a research uptake pathway. Planning is needed for practical side of implementation of  research. Capacities and the environment on various levels determine the likelihood of uptake :

  • Individual capacities (ability to communicate and analyse) of the researchers as well as the users (levels of influence,  absorptive capacities) need to be considered.
  • Organisational capacity such factors such as policies, effectiveness of organisational management, skills, resources and finances also play a role.
  • Systems level capacities such as the political climate, the communications resources that are available to reach multiple audiences, the ideologies of the day and the salience of the problem play a role regarding uptake of research

These points provide a framework for the types of capacity building that need to take place to create a research uptake adoption pathway.

A few mechanisms that are useful in the process

Collaborations: Creating an environment where problem solvers and decision implementers collaborate may aid to develop a balance between the development of supply-side and demand side capacities. The creation of incentives for collaborations (e.g. recognition, awards and funding) may help to support researchers, practitioners and policy-influencers to collaborate on research.

Networks: To aid in development of capacity at individual, organisational and systems levels the participation of various actors in policy and research networks will facilitate interaction between researchers and decision makers. Research networks usually include a range of experts and people from various backgrounds in order to develop research that is relevant and adequately addresses issues of the present and future. In networks the utilisation of effective long term communication platforms is one of most valuable functions. It is also important to ensure that information needs flow both ways,  i.e. researchers need to speak to policy-influencers and policy-makers,  but also need to listen to ensure that they adequately understand the problems posed to policy makers.

Interchange of individuals in networks and environments: Interchange of people is a useful channel for exchange of information. Here academics could be placed for a period of time in policy making units or positions and vice versa, the policy makers may be seconded for a research fellowship in the higher education sector, to up-date knowledge in various research areas and to collaborate in research projects.

Intermediaries and knowledge brokers: Intermediaries or “knowledge brokers” have been identified widely in the literature as playing a major role, especially in the developed world as “knowledge managers, linking agents and capacity builders” (Przybycien et al., 2010). These professionals play a key role in collating and synthesising information from a range of sources and preparing it in formats that are accessible to decision makers. These individuals may be recruited from government , industry and academia.

Long term planning: It is important that researchers do not fall in the trap of being reactive; supplying evidence and solutions for immediate issues.  Focussing too much on the demand side may lock researchers in short-term projects. In designing their research they need to consider the development of capacity in areas that may be required in future, and as agendas change. Long-term strategies to influence policy, focussing on the supply side of knowledge for policy are important, researchers need to anticipate issues and questions and have verifiable data available to support decision-making. 

Communication planning and trainingResearchers need to be able to plan communication strategies and plans that are economical  and effective. There should be training  and resources available  for researchers to be able to deliver findings in  formats that are accessible and popular with policy- influencers and policy-makers, for example using the media platforms, and writing policy briefs and short papers. Succinct presentations that address the issue directly are most likely to be read and remembered.

Developing absorptive capacities: Demand for evidence may be stimulated through developing capacity in government departments and ministries to use research evidence in decision-making. Here one may assist decision makers to learn how to critically assess research.

“the two-communities” metaphor describes and explains the cultural divide between researchers or policy analysts as well as policy makers.

For more info on future blogs in this series, please click here. The essay on which this series is based can be found here


Bowen S, Zwi AB (2005) Pathways to “Evidence-Informed” Policy and Practice: A Framework for Action. PLoS Med 2(7): e166. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0020166

Caplan, N. (1979). The Two-Communities Theory and Knowledge Utilization. American Behavioral Scientist, 22(3), 459–470. doi:10.1177/000276427902200308

D Stone, S Maxwell, M. K. (2001). Bridging research and policy. Workshop DFiD, Radcliffe House, Warwick University. Retrieved February 24, 2014, from

Edwards, M. (2005). Social Science Research and Public Policy: Narrowing the Divide1. Australian Journal of Public Administration. Retrieved from

Livny, E., Mehendale, A. & Vanags, A. (2006). Bridging the research policy gaps in developing and transition countries: analytical lessons and Proposals for action. Retrieved from _205.pdf

PRZYBYCIEN, K., BECKMANN, K., PRATT, K., COOPER, A. & CRISHNA, N. (2010) The ISSUES Project: An Example of Knowledge Brokering at the Research Programme Level. 2nd International Conference on Innovation through Knowledge Transfer: InnovationKT2010. Coventry, UK.


This is the first blog in a four-part “Research Uptake: Knowledge to Policy” blog series:


Part 2 discussed a meta-analysis of the knowledge to policy field.

Part 3: Research Uptake Policy series: Key heuristics, metaphors, theories and frameworks

 Part 4: Towards synthesised theories of policy change

The essay on which this series is based can be found here


Dr Sara Grobbelaar is a researcher at CREST, Stellenbosch University, South Africa.