Context: Public health researchers make a limited but important contribution to policy development. Some engage with policy directly through committees, advisory boards, advocacy coalitions, ministerial briefings, intervention design consultation, and research partnerships with government, as well as by championing research-informed policy in the media. Nevertheless, the research utilization literature has paid little attention to these diverse roles and the ways that policymakers use them. This article describes how policymakers use researchers in policymaking and examines how these activities relate to models of research utilization. It also explores the extent to which policymakers’ accounts of using researchers concur with the experiences of “policy-engaged” public health researchers.
Methods: We conducted semi-structured interviews with thirty-two Australian civil servants, parliamentary ministers, and ministerial advisers identified as “research-engaged” by public health researchers. We used structured and inductive coding to generate categories that we then compared with some of the major research utilization models.
Findings: Policymakers were sophisticated and multifaceted users of researchers for purposes that we describe as Galvanizing Ideas, Clarification and Advice, Persuasion, and Defense. These categories overlapped but did not wholly fit with research utilization models. Despite the negative connotation, “being used” was reported as reciprocal and uncompromising, although researchers and policymakers were likely to categorize these uses differently. Policymakers countered views expressed by some researchers. That is, they sought robust dialogue and creative thinking rather than compliance, and they valued expert opinion when research was insufficient for decision making. The technical/political character of policy development shaped the ways in which researchers were used.
Conclusions: Elucidating the diverse roles that public health researchers play in policymaking, and the multiple ways that policymakers use these roles, provides researchers and policymakers with a framework for negotiating and reflecting on activities that may advance the public health goals shared by both.