Enabling evidence-based policy making

04 September 2020

Dr Helen Ferrier

Dr Helen Ferrier

NFU Chief Science and Regulatory Affairs adviser

Dr Helen Ferrier and an insect in a plastic container

The NFU's Chief Science and Regulatory Affairs Adviser, Dr Helen Ferrier, recently spoke alongside leading academics at a conference focused on enabling evidence-based policy making.

The conference, titled Science Policy: Improving the Uptake of Research into UK Policy, was organised by the Wellcome Trust and brought together policy makers and academic researchers to encourage mutual understanding, to build a community of policy-engaged researchers and research-engaged policy makers.

Topics covered at the conference included the role of intermediaries in policy making, international science policy, and how to influence policy as a researcher.

NFU’s Dr Helen Ferrier gave a presentation titled ‘Policy development and the exchange of knowledge’, followed by a Q&A session. Helen says:

“Policy leads directly to decisions and regulations that impact livelihoods, economy, environment and society. It must therefore be based on the best available evidence, a theme for much of the NFU’s policy development and advocacy work. We accept that the full evidence may not be available and ‘evidence’ is a broad term. Ultimately, political decisions have to be made. But if government wants policies to achieve particular outcomes, the associated rules, measures and incentives must have a grounding in reality.

“They are also more likely to achieve buy-in from those affected. The knowledge generated through publicly funded scientific research is a vital and robust part of the evidence base. However, the fact that disagreement is another inherent factor in science can make it difficult for non-academics and those preferring black and white answers to engage.

“There is clearly more to policy making than peer-reviewed facts and figures, but there can be a lack of formal ways for research to influence unless it is a piece of work commissioned by a government department; even this can sit on a shelf or even be actively ignored if it does not give the right answers. Those in the academic community - both funders and providers - should strive to be part of the conversations that influence policy decision-makers, which involve thought-leaders and opinion-formers in NGOs, the private sector and civil society. It cannot just be about following the money and looking for partners to improve the chances of winning the next grant.

“Private sector R&D is also extremely important, especially when there are pressures on public finances. It has a role, not just in innovation for commercial purposes, but in influencing policy and public funders' research strategies. The highly competitive nature of the agrifood sectors can  be a barrier to sharing knowledge. But it can also be difficult to get businesses to engage and invest in collaborative pre-competitive research if there is no commercial advantage to be had or where involvement is expected for free.

“All this is why it is so valuable to establish and nurture close links between science, policy, industry and civil society communities, particularly for controversial topics. Also, if good connections are made, intermediaries can gain an understanding of the pressures and barriers within science and use this in their influencing of policy-makers.”

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