Taking research to Westminster

15 February 2012

"Our work reduces the degree of uncertainty in policymaking," says Richard Bartholomew. "There are few areas where social research evidence can provide absolute certainty about what will work, but robust evidence narrows down the range of uncertainty and identifies what is likely to be achievable and what it will cost."

Richard BartholomewBartholomew is Joint Head of the Government Social Research Service (GSR), a group of over 1,000 social scientists providing and commissioning social research for government departments. There are GSR members in all main government departments as well as the devolved administrations.

As GSR states on its website, its purpose is to provide "objective, reliable, relevant and timely social research", support the development and evaluation of policies, and ensure policy debate is "informed by the best research evidence and thinking from the social sciences". Given the amount of research out there, this seems a very challenging task. Challenging, but far from impossible, Bartholomew argues.

"It's mainly about synthesizing a wide variety of different research evidence, commissioned by government and other funders, and extracting the key information. The trick is to hone down and focus on the most relevant and robust research on the topic, and perform quality assurance – both of qualitative and quantitative research," he says.

One of the key issues policy analysts focus on is evidence on the likely scale of costs and value for money if an idea or proposal is to be adopted as a new policy initiative.

But isn't there a danger that policymakers might ignore the analysts’ work, instead ‘cherry picking’ research evidence supporting their view while ignoring contradictory findings?

"It might be a temptation, but all politicians realise that this carries a high risk. Government is held to account, and it’s imperative that clear evidence is provided and made available for the decisions that are made," Bartholomew points out. "The role of analysts is to provide that objective evidence."

A wide range of social science disciplines are represented within GSR - including psychology, social policy, economics, geography, sociology, political science, criminology and social statistics.

"It's the type of research skills, as much as the specific disciplinary knowledge, we are interested in – for example skills in data manipulation and data management, not least for the analysis of longitudinal data."

So what is the big difference in working as a government analyst, compared to being an academic?

"Analysts in government interpret and apply the research. We need an in-depth knowledge of the evidence in our particular policy fields in order to weigh up its strengths and weaknesses. A key ability is to explain it so others can understand what the key messages are. Some analysts are more involved in analysis, some synthesize research, and some commission the collection of new data where there are gaps," explains Bartholomew.

"What we would like to see are more research syntheses by the research community – not only of quantitative studies, but also for qualitative work. That’s often what people working on policy issues find most immediately valuable."

The sector is going through challenging times, with cutbacks and civil service reforms - but without major negative impacts on GSR, says Bartholomew.

"I don’t think this is the case. In some areas less research is being commissioned. Obviously we have to keep a very clear focus on objectives and costs, but we are able to meet our priorities," he concludes.