Seminar on Strategic Science with Policy Impact introduced new perspectives on dialogues between researchers and policy-makers

Publication date 20.6.2018 10.26 | Published in English on 20.6.2018 at 10.37
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What is the relationship between research and policy-making in Finland and elsewhere in the world? Collaboration between the two has improved, but what else should we be doing? These and other issues were discussed in the seminar Strategic Science with Policy Impact on 12 June. More than a hundred researchers, public officials and others interested in the issue attended the event.

The seminar was preceded by a symposium “Advancing behaviour change intervention research to promote public health”, organised by the Finnish Medical Society Duodecim and Juho Vainio Foundation. One of the symposium keynote speakers, Professor Kelly D. Brownell, gave also the keynote lecture at the Strategic Science with Policy Impact seminar. Brownell presented his “virtuous cycle of solutions” where research is preceded by finding the correct change agents and formulating strategic research questions with them. An important element of the virtuous cycle is communications so that research outcomes will reach the intended audience. There are a number of change agents, and researchers must identify the correct ones to achieve real change.

The seminar’s panel discussion continued on the same theme, but focused on the Finnish context. The panel included Professor Brownell, Director-General Olli-Pekka Heinonen (Finnish National Agency for Education), Professor Petri Ylikoski (University of Helsinki), Senior Financial Adviser Ulla Hämäläinen (Finnish Ministry of Finance) and Senior Specialist Kirsi-Marja Lonkila (Demos Helsinki). The panellists were fairly unanimous in that the relationship between research and policy-making has improved in Finland. They also agreed that a lot remains to be achieved. New financial instruments, for example, have made the relationship between research and policy-making more interactive. One problem identified by the panel was that there are no good enough means to measure the effectiveness of research. The role of researchers in political debate was an issue that divided the panellists. Some saw that researchers remain too passive in public debate, others emphasised that we must not draw conclusions that go too far based on research outcomes. One cannot remove politics from policy-making.

Parallel sessions discussed real life examples

The seminar was concluded by three parallel sessions on ongoing research projects that had been collecting evidence-based information in different kinds of interventions in real-life settings. (More info about the speakers and slides)

The Health promotion session focused on how people can be motivated to change their behaviours to improve their health and how to get reliable research results on motivation efforts and their effectiveness. All three speakers discussed digital tools and mobile applications as health promotion tools. One of the identified challenges was that digital applications usually reach people who are already interested in health promotion, and that it is difficult to reach and motivate people who have real health problems and are most in need of intervention. Moreover, digital tools cannot replace personal guidance and health counselling.

A broader social issue discussed during the session was that using digital applications to promote health will draw attention to the individual and assign them a lot of responsibility. However, it is important to see people as part of one or more communities and identify potential peer groups and their significance. Digital applications are only one means of health promotion, and although at present a lot of research interest is focused on them as tools that influence people’s behaviours, they cannot replace well-functioning health and social welfare policies. Particular attention should be paid to reaching out to the most vulnerable groups and to their needs.

It was also concluded that instead of comparing different kinds of solutions, it would be more fruitful to identify the elements that make a health promotion application work, that is, which parts, functions or characteristics of the application work well.

The speakers in the session on Wellbeing promotion and wellbeing services discussed how different kinds of early interventions could affect the wellbeing of older people and families with children. The researchers’ role has been two-fold: on one hand they work with service providers to develop interventions based on clients’ needs or evidence, on the other hand they give service providers training on how to use interventions. All the research projects discussed had had positive effects on their target groups, which in turn had increased the popularity of the interventions.

Researchers emphasised the importance of new concepts for wellbeing services, but reminded that there can be strict scientific criteria on the design of trials. They also highlighted the need for good contacts with, for example, pioneering county-level operators who are responsible for integrating health and social services. For research purposes, it is important to deploy quantitative measurement data, and collect even qualitative effectiveness data through interviews, for example, especially when new operators adopt interventions. In this way, it is possible to get information why an intervention works better in the implementation phase than in the trial phase. “Intervention research projects take several years so that the interventions introduced in practice and that their long-term effects can be evaluated,” the researchers concluded as a message to those who finance research.

Three research projects were presented in the Development of education and training session dealing with training for adults and young people with regard to work life skills, physical activity and mental exercises. They led the session participants to discuss how important it is to understand different kinds of processes associated with interventions and what kinds of groups should be adopted as targets for interventions. Long-term surveys and evaluations were considered important even in this group. It was discussed how it is easier for public officials to present good operating models to others if research contained also cost-effectiveness assessments. Presentations of school-based projects inspired the session participants to envisage what would happen if a portion of ordinary school classes was reserved for showing young people how they can improve their self-knowledge and wellbeing. Future discussions should deliberate whether the planning and launching an intervention should be carried out by one operator and the assessment work by another.

The seminar Strategic Science with Policy Impact was organised by Experimental Finland in cooperation with the Government’s analysis, assessment and research activities, the Strategic Research Council’s two programmes (Health, wellbeing and lifestyles and Skilled employees, successful labour market), the Finnish Medical Society Duodecim, and Juho Vainio Foundation.