The interplay of ideas between research and policy in public health

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Dr. Katherine Smith
Global Public Health Unit, University of Edinburgh
Thursday, 23 February 2017 - 12:00

There is, according to a much debated recent paper, ‘a perfect storm’ gathering around the concept of ‘evidence-based policy’ (EBP), ‘generated by the insurgence of several concurrent crises’ (Saltelli and Giampietro, 2015: p1). This includes growing public distrust in science and academic expertise following the failings of mainstream economics that were highlighted by the 2008 global economic crisis, as well as broader indicators of public dissatisfaction with traditional policy elites. More specifically, analyses of health policies developed in the UK in an era of EBP rhetoric have struggled to identify concrete examples of EBP.  Despite this, researchers and funders concerned with public health seem reluctant to relinquish the idea that policies might one date be ‘evidence-based’ and continue to invest in efforts to ‘translate’ evidence for policy (e.g. Diem et al, 2015), while frequently bemoaning the persistent ‘barrier’ of ‘politics’ (see Pawson, 2006). Employing health inequalities as a case study, this talk will argue that, by failing to move beyond simplistic caricatures of rational scientists battling strategic politicians, proponents of EBP too rarely give sufficient consideration to the complexity of politics or the role of the public in policy debates. Taking a rather different approach, this talk argues that it is ideas, rather than evidence, which are the appropriate unit of analysis for studying this relationship.  Whilst this may seem a relatively simple distinction, the talk argues that it is also essential as it emphasises the malleability of knowledge, highlighting that ideas can transform as they move between actors and across contexts.  Employing extensive interview and documentary data relating to two prominent public health concerns, health inequalities and tobacco control, the talk will discuss how and why innovative research-informed ideas can travel beyond academia but nevertheless fail to inspire policy change, and why, occasionally, research-based ideas do appear to completely transform the way policymakers and the public think about particular issues. Looking to the future, I will make a case for creating deliberative democratic spaces which acknowledge the ‘interplay of ideas’ and encourage researchers, policymakers and citizens to come together to consider research-informed ideas about policy change.


Ciudad Politécnica de la Innovación
Edificio 8E, Acceso J, Planta 4ª (Sala Descubre. Cubo Rojo)
Universidad Politécnica de Valencia | Camino de Vera s/n

Short CV: 

Katherine is a Reader in the Global Public Health Unit at the University of Edinburgh.  Her research interests include policies and interventions to tackle health inequalities, understanding policy change and inertia (particularly in terms of tracing the influence of different ideas), processes of knowledge/research translation, and the influence of corporations, advocacy organisations and citizens on policies impacting on health. Prior to joining the University of Edinburgh, Kat worked at the University of Bath, where she focused on tobacco industry policy influence in the EU, and at the University of Durham, where she focused on evaluating policies and interventions intended to reduce health inequalities. She has published over 50 journal articles, book chapters and reports, as well as several books, including Beyond Evidence-Based Policy in Public Health: The Interplay of Ideas (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), on which this talk draws.