by Annette Boaz and Kathryn Oliver
Articulating the research priorities of government is one way to encourage the production of relevant research to inform policy. We have been working with the Areas of Research Interest (ARIs) produced and published by government departments in the UK. ARIs provide an opportunity to gain insight into what research is of interest to each department. It’s this research that forms the basis of our recent article in Policy & Politics: How well do the UK government’s ‘Areas of Research Interest’ work as boundary objects to facilitate research use in policymaking?
When we started working on ARIs back in 2019 we picked up on some concern amongst those tasked with producing them. They worried that these documents wouldn’t create impact and instead might be destined to gather dust on a shelf (albeit a virtual one). With funding from the Economic and Social Research Council we have spent the last couple of years working with a team in the Government Office for Science to consider how government departments and other stakeholders can get the best use out of ARIs. This work has involved a range of activities including running a large stakeholder engagement exercise called Rebuilding a Resilient Britain, supporting departments as they refresh their ARI documents, working with a cross government group of officials responsible for ARIs and conducting a cross cutting analysis of the ARIs to identify issues of interest to more than one department.
We recently had an opportunity to interview key stakeholders to reflect on this work. Much of the recent activity designed to support research use in policy focuses on the boundary between research and policy communities, with a wide range of – often relational – interventions including policy fellowships, training programmes and the development of intermediary organisations. There has been less of a focus on the role of the packaged information used to support research use. These are typically objects, such as guidelines and toolkits that help to convey key information. We found the concept of boundary objects useful in understanding the ways in which ARIs are used and how they are supported by boundary practices and boundary workers, including through engagement opportunities. Boundary objects can take on a variety of forms, ranging from a policy document to a drawing or a metaphor. The intention is that these objects are used to share and exchange information across the many boundaries that impact upon our professional lives. Boundary objects tend to need support from boundary workers (sometimes described as intermediaries, brokers or boundary spanners) who work to make sure the object can be useful and used.
Boundary objects have the flexibility to move between and be understood by different communities, while maintaining core integrity in terms of content.
We see the ARIs being used as a boundary object across multiple boundaries, with implications for the ways in which the ARIs are crafted and shared. For example, while ARIs are often considered as a mechanism for communicating departmental research interests to external academic stakeholders, we also saw how useful they were for government departments to learn about each other’s research priorities. In the application of ARIs in the UK policy context, we see a constant interplay between boundary objects, practices and people all operating within the confines of existing systems and processes. For example, understanding what was meant by a particular ARI sometimes involved ‘decoding’ work as part of the academic-policy engagement process. This might involve academics having conversations with analytical or policy colleagues to understand what they really want to know about a particular topic.
While ARIs have an important role to play they are no magic bullet. Nor do they tell the whole story of governmental research interests. Government departments are unlikely to include in their ARIs highly contentious or sensitive topics. Other channels of academic-policy engagement will be required for these topics. Although it’s tempting to settle upon a single solution to improving research use, optimising the use of research in policy making requires the galvanisation of a range of mechanisms, including ARIs, in a coordinated way. Only then will we start to see more clearly how useful research can be to policy.
You can read the original research in Policy & Politics:
Boaz, A., & Oliver, K. (2023). How well do the UK government’s ‘areas of research interest’ work as boundary objects to facilitate the use of research in policymaking?, Policy & Politics (published online ahead of print 2023) from https://bristoluniversitypressdigital.com/view/journals/pp/aop/article-10.1332-030557321X16748269360624/article-10.1332-030557321X16748269360624.xml
The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blog post authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of Policy & Politics, the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.
If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested to read:
Hill O’Connor, C., Smith, K., & Stewart, E. (2023). Integrating evidence and public engagement in policy work: an empirical examination of three UK policy organisations, Policy & Politics (published online ahead of print 2023) from https://bristoluniversitypressdigital.com/view/journals/pp/aop/article-10.1332-030557321X16698031794569/article-10.1332-030557321X16698031794569.xml
Koga, N. M., Loureiro, M., de Moura Palotti, P. L., da Silva Lins, R., Gontyjo do Couto, B., & Nogueira Lima, S. (2022). Analysing the information sources Brazilian bureaucrats use as evidence in everyday policymaking, Policy & Politics, 50(4), 483-506 from https://bristoluniversitypressdigital.com/view/journals/pp/50/4/article-p483.xml