For years, research and innovation policy-makers around the world have stressed the need of evidence-based policies. Much has been said and written about the need of solid data and reliable scientific evidence to guide the design and re-design of Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) policies. However, this is easier said than done. In spite of considerable efforts for measuring trends and policy outcomes, and some “research about research” programs, much of the evidence available continues to be incomplete, patchy, or even worse, remains ‘unused’ by policy-makers. A recent initiative by the Norwegian Research council offers an interesting way of addressing this, taking seriously the policy learning side of evidence-base building.
There are at least three powerful reasons why STI policy-makers need scientific evidence in their policy-making. Firstly, science, technology and innovation are very dynamic social processes taking place in rather complex national and trans-national systems. Any policy initiative must be built upon a good understanding of those dynamic trends. Secondly, public initiatives are funded with tax-payers money, and in any democratic political system, this requires a certain degree of political accountability as to whether the money has been spent in most efficient and effective way. Scientific evidence is an essential component of this broad political accountability of STI policy-making. And thirdly, policy-makers need evidence for STI policy-making because it will give them important clues regarding current and upcoming science-related societal problems, providing a good basis to anticipate future bottlenecks and medium-term needs.
However, this is easier said than done. On the one hand, the ‘supply’ of this evidence is not always straightforward, complete or scientifically sound. On the other hand, the ‘demand’ of this evidence is sometimes scarce, unclear and (perhaps in highly politicised contexts) even undesired. For that reason, policy learning must be taken seriously, on both sides, namely the production and consumption of scientific evidence for STI policy-making.
With the intention of improving this, the Norwegian Research Council launched in 2010 the program FORFI, which is dedicated “to develop and disseminate the scientific basis for STI policy-making, and to function as an arena for learning and dialogue between policy-designers (at all levels, including higher education institutions) and researchers”. The first aspect aims at generating more capacity (and more absorptive capacity too) in both the ‘supply’ of evidence by researchers, and in the ‘demand’ of that evidence by policy-makers. However, it is the second aspect that makes FORFI a unique cutting-edge program, namely, its ambition to become an arena for evidence-based learning and dialogue in STI-policy-making.
To be sure, FORFI has a limited amount of research funds to grant in the production of scientific evidence for STI policy-making. The question is, how does the program work in order to create this dialogue and learning?
- The program supports the production of ‘scientific synthesis’ or in-depth state of the art literature review reports on specific themes, which allow identifying the cutting-edge fields for future FORFI funding themes in its successive ‘calls for proposals’.
- Once the ‘call for proposal’ is public, the program arranges a series of informal meetings and focus groups between prospective applicants and the ‘users’ of that future results (different policy-makers) in the phase prior to the researchers’ final definition of their research project applications. This informal dialogue is aimed at stimulating researchers to design research project applications that are not only scientifically excellent, but also consider seriously the user-relevance of their future results.
- Once granted, the projects have to build up a 360-degree dissemination plans that are implemented from the very beginning (not only at the end) of the project. The projects must develop platforms for dialogue and learning with users along the way.
- Last but not least, the program arranges a series of conferences along the life of the program, so that policy-makers and users are invited to discuss the contextual implications of clusters of research results, putting the individual findings into the wider perspective of future STI policy-making.
Taken one by one, each of these actions are perhaps not so new after all. Yet the innovative power that FORFI brings forward is this careful implementation of all these procedures at once, in a holistic view about the need of enhancing the ‘supply’ but also the ‘demand’ of scientific evidence-based STI policy-making. In other words, FORFI has taken the learning and dialogue between researchers and policy-makers as the backbone of its own purpose. And it is in this precise sense that FORFI could serve as an inspiration for similar efforts elsewhere.