Should public health researchers be passionate advocates of their work when engaging with policy makers or should they present their findings in the most neutral way possible, sticking to the facts only (and preferably economic figures) to encourage take up of their research? This question was the focus of a heated debate at the recent national School for Public Health Research Annual Scientific Meeting, bringing together researchers from eight different centres of excellence across the UK and a selection of senior health practitioners at the Royal Society in London. Chris Whitty: academics should present their findings neutrally to politicians without making any advocacy statements The tone for the debate was set by Professor Chris Whitty, Chief Scientific Adviser for the Department of Health, who challenged the audience to be more ambitious in their public health goals. At the same time, he warned academics to play to their strengths: if they wanted to ensure impact of their work, academics should present their findings neutrally to politicians without making any advocacy statements, as this would deter politicians. Advocacy should be reserved for politicians, who in turn are supported by economic advisors. Therefore, academics would do well to present their data in terms of opportunity costs and trade-offs; without solid economic back-up, any evidence claim would be quickly dismissed by politicians, according to Whitty. This provoked strong reactions from audience members and particularly on Twitter, where a lively discussion ensued throughout the rest of the day. People questioned whether it is possible or even desirable to leave advocacy at the door when dealing with politicians. Some argued that, from a social science perspective, there is no such thing as neutral evidence and that it is our duty as public health scientists to take a stand and advocate against increasing health inequalities. Others disputed the need from politicians for dry evidence, stating that purely evidence based approaches can leave politicians cold without a persuasive narrative. Instead, emotionally informed and narrative research was important to persuade local government. Researchers needed to align themselves with local government concerns and cultures and acknowledge the importance of context to have any impact. Duncan Selbie: academics should be more ruthless, coordinated and angry in the interactions with policy makers to get them to act on the evidence Duncan Selbie, Chief Executive at Public Health England, poured oil on the fire in the afternoon by appealing for the exact opposite to Chris Whitty’s call for more neutrality: academics should be more ruthless, coordinated and angry in the interactions with policy makers to get them to act on the evidence that academics have generated. He encouraged public health researchers to make more use of behavioural science to help policy makers take notice and implement their findings. This provoked several reactions, with some participants highlighting the role that advocacy played in the public health fight against the tobacco industry, while others made passionate pleas on soapboxes for the re-politicising of public health science, arguing that it was unhelpful to divide science and politics into two separate worlds. The storm seemed to settle towards the end of the day, when Twitter users and audience members started suggesting solutions for the debate, which was dubbed “Passionate Advocacy vs. Dry Evidence”. One suggestion was that public health researchers should develop a ‘horses for courses’ approach: at certain times some people needed to be passionate advocates, while others at different times needed be neutral scientists to get the listening ear of politicians. The different approaches were related to different levels at which politicians operate: local politicians were more persuaded by narratives emerging from research and advocacy, while national politicians valued neutrally presented evidence and data. Others suggested the use of intermediates to make the advocacy case for public health, such as voluntary community organisations that represent the will of the people, and by focusing research on the key questions that front line workers are struggling with. Or even better, persuade policy makers to become advocates of research evidence! Overall, participants agreed that science needed to be pushed more up the policy agenda, as research is currently losing out to politics and economics. Therefore, in some circumstance researchers need to consider accept that submitting good enough evidence quickly is better than waiting too long for perfect peer reviewed publications. Furthermore, we need to be aware that different kinds of evidence are used in decision making processes. My favourite solution was proposed by Professor John Frank, Director of the Scottish Collaboration for Public Health Research & Policy: if you want good policy influencers, you need to change the academic model to produce them. The biggest barriers to knowledge mobilisation are structural and often in academia. As long as we don’t train public health students in engaging with policy and practice partners, fail to teach and reward them in how to use different types of evidence and do not involve them in collaborative research, we will keep returning to this debate for many Annual Scientific Meetings to come.
Author – Peter van der Graaf