The Social Life of Policy Knowledge

Processes of ‘knowledge exchange’ have become increasingly complex over the past few decades, with growing pluralism in the types of knowledge considered relevant to policymaking, as well as the proliferation of information available in the networked society. Yet scholars of public policy still tend to treat questions around the production, translation and legitimation of knowledge for policy largely as a black box. This strand of research explores the social life of knowledge for policy. How are different kinds of knowledge for policy produced, inscribed, translated and disseminated? How are these different knowledges – whether lay or expert – screened, processed and enacted by policy actors? On what basis do they derive and assert their authority? And how do the norms and practices guiding this knowledge selection and use in turn shape processes of knowledge production by scientists and researchers? Drawing on ethnography, sociology of science, and organizational sociology methods and theories, our research aims to produce new insights into the complex and shifting relationship between knowledge production and policy making.

Current projects

Within this theme, our members and associate members are part of the following projects:

  • SIPHER (Systems Science in Public Health and Health Economics Research). Associate Member, Kat Smith is leading a policy–focused workstream in a UKPRP funded five-year consortium called SIPHER ( SIPHER is a collaborative project, working with three policy partners to support evidence-informed decision-making around trade-offs within complex systems. Our partners are the Scottish Government, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority and Sheffield City Council.  The workstream Kat is leading (WS1) is working to understand policy efforts to achieve inclusive growth (or wellbeing economies) and a range of other social determinants of health that are known to play an important role in health inequalities. As part of this, WS1 is studying how and why people working in policy settings are using various kinds of evidence and data in decision-making across different policy areas, with a view to understanding the potential role of SIPHER’s efforts to provide evidence that will support decision-making across different policy areas (e.g. health and the economy).
  • Public Health Leadership. Associate Member, Kat Smith, is collaborating on a two year CIHR funded international project that is comparatively examining public health leadership in the COVID-19 pandemic. The team, led by Professor Patrick Fafard at the University of Ottawa, are using interviews and legislative analysis to explore the role the Chief Medical Officers have played during the pandemic with a particular focus on the tensions between the scientific and political dimensions of this role. They will consider how and why this role has been adjusted during the pandemic and assess the consequences of this (both for the individuals holding the role and the credibility of public health leadership during the pandemic). The aim is to consider what the longer-term lessons for public health leadership during a crisis might be. The team are looking across four distinct Westminster-style political systems: Australia, Canada, Republic of Ireland and the devolved UK.

Previous projects

Completed projects from our members and associate members within this theme:

  • A Risky Business? The Politics of Knowledge Transfer in Public Health was an ESRC Future Research Leaders grant, which explored how policy actors in third sector and commercial settings shape and promote knowledge in public health debates, and how policy actors, academics and activists engage with public health ‘advocacy’.
  • Investigating Networks of Zoonosis Innovation (INZI) was a 5-year ERC Advanced grant led by James Smith, exploring how African trypanosomiasis (commonly known as sleeping sickness) has been researched, controlled and treated from the Second World War to the present day.
  • Technoscience, Law and Society: Interrogating the Nexus examined the relationships between technoscience, law, and policymaking. As a Research Network, it drew together participants with a diverse range of academic expertise and policy experience. This AHRC project ran from February 2013-February 2015.
  • Making Genomic Medicine was a Wellcome Trust-funded project that analyses how developments in genetic science and technology have interacted with a number of changes in the policy, regulative and organisational environment.
  • Epigenetics, Ethics and Society: Accounting for Responsibility in the Biomedical Sciences explored how scientists in the field of epigenetics are engaging with the social and political dimensions and implications of their work. It was a 1-year project, funded through a Wellcome Trust Society and Ethics grant, and running from March 2014-March 2015.
  • Neuroscience and Family Life: The Brain in Policy and Everyday Practice was a project concerned with the place, role and impact of neuroscientific evidence in social policy, and the interpretation of this by those who make and are targeted by policy. This 2-year Leverhulme Trust project ran from November 2013-November 2015.
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