Karen Bogenschneider: Fresh Insights on Measuring Research Use: Policymaker Perspectives on How Theory Falls Short

Social science has done well in providing empirical studies that depict how research is used in policymaking. Yet it has performed less well in another contribution science can make—developing explanatory theoretical frameworks that predict and promote future research use (Ness, 2010). For those who conduct theory-driven research studies, Carol Weiss (1999) raised a provocative question two decades ago that remains relevant today: Have researchers been groping around in the dark looking in the wrong places for the wrong purposes for the wrong reasons? Weiss claimed that some research contributions are not “easy to see” and may “not be visible to the naked eye” (Weiss, 1986, p. 217).

Existing studies have focused disproportionately on the supply side of research utilization—the conduct and communication of research to policymakers—with far less attention to the demand side—the uses to which policymakers put research (Gamoran, 2018; Tseng, 2012). To shed light on the demand side, Elizabeth Day, Emily Parrott, and I revisited existing theory by turning to policymakers themselves for their perspectives on how research contributes to policymaking. We compared how policymakers said they used research with the predictions of four prominent theories of research utilization. What we learned is that Weiss’s words may have been prophetic: If researchers rely only on existing theories to measure research use, they may be missing what policymakers see as important contributions to their decisions and to the policy process.

Citation: Bogenschneider, K. (2020). Fresh Insights on Measuring Research Use: Policymaker Perspectives on How Theory Falls Short. New York: William T Grant Foundation.