Government bureaucrats and politicians want to know what’s working in Norwegian schools. To that end they dedicate significant funding to educational research. But how is that research actually used? In this photo, Minister of Education and Integration Jan Tore Sanner speaks with 7th grade students after announcing new curricula in the school.
Government bureaucrats and politicians want to know what’s working in Norwegian schools. To that end they dedicate significant funding to educational research. But how is that research actually used? In this photo, Minister of Education and Integration Jan Tore Sanner speaks with 7th grade students after announcing new curricula in the school.

Like most people, Norwegian bureaucrats rarely read research

When Norwegian civil servants want research-based knowledge, they use Google or ask a colleague.

Published

Public bureaucrats should stay up-to-date on the latest research in a variety of areas. At least that’s the ideal. Government ministries fund a tremendous amount of research and justify the expenditures by claiming that this knowledge can help them formulate Norwegian policy.

Child welfare, school and climate are three examples of areas where the Norwegian government administration invests heavily in research.

But what actually happens to the research after leaving the researcher's work desk? Is it read and used by those who paid for it?

How do bureaucrats in the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Fisheries access research in their field, for example? And do they use the research?

High education levels and good expertise

A group of researchers at the University of Oslo has taken a closer look at these questions.

The researchers surveyed 1870 people employed in 22 different places. They conducted in-depth interviews with several high-ranking officials in public systems, people who often make important decisions. Almost all those surveyed and interviewed had high education levels and solid competence in reading and understanding research articles. Almost 10 per cent had been scientists or scholars themselves.

Never before has such a large study been done in Norway on how government organizations collect and use research. Nor does much international research exist on the topic.

Easy-to-find sources

Taran Mari Thune is a professor at the University of Oslo. She and her colleagues at UiO’s OSIRIS Center are now analysing the results of the study.

The professor is a little surprised at what she is finding.

Taran Mari Thune believes that disseminating research results is an important gateway to bureaucrats.
Taran Mari Thune believes that disseminating research results is an important gateway to bureaucrats.

“Research does inform and orient Norwegian civil servants. We recognize that. But what they tend to access is the most easily available research. Many of them don’t go very far to find it,” she says.

When the researchers asked the bureaucrats about where they go to find current research, many responded that they consult with a colleague. Or they search online.

Few officials go to primary sources, such as scientific papers that are available online or in print. Fewer yet contact researchers directly.

More than 60 per cent say they search online. Nearly 50 per cent say they often find the research they are looking for by reading news about research in the media. Almost as many say they ask their colleagues.

Only about 20 per cent of civil servants responded that they frequently search scientific databases and publications.

These findings come from what the researchers at UiO call a pilot study. However, the main study, which includes even more participants, and is being analyzed now, shows a fairly similar picture, Thune says.

Below is an excerpt of how civil servants answered one of the survey questions. At the end of the article, you can see all their responses to this question.

More than just "asking a friend"

Håkon Kavli is a department director in the Ministry of Education and Research. He thinks the findings need to be nuanced.

“The fact that the survey responses show such a high frequency of collegial support isn’t that strange. Asking a colleague isn’t just "asking a friend," says Kavli.

Kavli thinks it is natural to first ask a colleague for advice when looking for research.

“That doesn’t mean that this is the only or most important way to find research. It may be that this is where you begin. The survey also shows that officials use primary sources and search in journals,” Kavli says.

Scientists aren’t in the pocketes of bureaucrats

Critical voices in the social debate claim at regular intervals that the links between researchers and those who shape Norwegian policy are too close. People assume that this is threatening academic freedom. Stories about undue pressure from those who finance research have surfaced in the media over the years.

But it certainly does not appear that scientists are in the pockets of bureaucrats and politicians, according to Thune’s research. She does not see any such indications from this study, at least.

“Contacting researchers directly is the least used way of accessing research-based knowledge. Very few bureaucrats do this,” she says.

Few civil servants attend seminars or other events where researchers share their findings. Thune finds this somewhat surprising as well. Among researchers, such events are often regarded as important arenas for research dissemination and exchange of knowledge.

Media used as research dissemination source

Many bureaucrats justify their lack of contact with scientists and research with not having enough time. They do not have time to find primary sources and read scientific articles.

The media thus becomes an important way to access research material, says Thune.

"Research dissemination likely plays quite an important role as a gateway to our officials," she says.

Previous studies have shown that most Norwegian researchers share their research. But the officials want scientists to formulate their research more succinctly and to tell them more clearly what the most important findings are and what they mean to society.

For Norwegian government officials, it is more important for the research to be available and relevant than for it to be at a high scientific level.

Differences among officials

The researchers at UiO’s OSIRIS Centre also find some differences among civil servants.

The officials who are educated as social scientists – there are many of them in Norwegian public service – access and evaluate knowledge in a slightly different way from those who have a natural science background.

The natural scientists often go to the primary sources, in the form of books or articles in professional journals. When these officials need to assess what is relevant to them, they more often consider purely scientific criteria, such as research published in reputable journals.

Social scientists tend to access research relevant to their field of work. They are less concerned with scientific criteria.

Different fields

Thune believes one possible explanation is that the social science and natural science fields function differently.

The parts of the state administration where many natural scientists work are more like specialist organizations. For example, they might be involved with water quality or fishing quotas. Social scientists more often work in fields where they handle numerous issues. They may have less opportunity to dig into the details.

Kavli from the Ministry of Education and Research also believes that the contrast can be explained by different research traditions.

“In the natural sciences, medicine and health fields, the answer is usually relatively clear cut. Finding causal relationships in social research is more challenging, such as determining whether implementing a certain measure in school results in better learning for students."

Kavli believes social science bureaucrats look at systematic summaries of several research articles in one area, rather than relying on individual studies.

Research sources can be random

Civil servants, like the rest of us, today live in a world with an unbelievable amount of information available.

Thune points out that the abundance of knowledge can make it increasingly difficult to keep up-to-date in one’s field.

“When bureaucrats receive a request for information, for example from Parliament, they often have only a few days to dig up the relevant research. Some ministries, such as the Ministry of Health, have their own knowledge centres and a directorate with special expertise that they can forward the request to,” says Thune.

Some ministries are more systematic in reading research than others. Often they have established their own knowledge or research department. Their task is to systematize and disseminate research in the field.

But other ministries don’t have these resources. Individuals in the ministry then bear the responsibility for collecting the required information.

In such cases, exactly what is selected from research findings can be a bit random, Thune believes.

“If officials have no one to turn to who can evaluate and systematize the research, they will have to go by what they themselves consider to be relevant,” she says.

Need for knowledge brokers

Kavli believes this study indicates a need for more of what he calls “knowledge brokers.”

“It’s important to translate research for users. I believe that the administration in general would benefit from becoming more aware of this. We need more people with this kind of expertise –internal individuals in the ministries who can evaluate research, find credible summaries of research results, and disseminate findings in ways that make them accessible and useful.

Kavli believes that systematic knowledge summaries of international research in a field provide a more robust basis for being able to say that "research shows” something.

At the same time, he warns against making research the exclusive premise provider for political decisions.

“Research may not always provide totally unambiguous answers. But research should, of course, be an important component of a Ministry's investigation and decision-making,” says Kavli.

Along with many others, he believes we need both basic research that the researchers themselves initiate, as well as research ordered by the ministries.

“We shouldn’t only have answers to specific problems. The usefulness of research can come at unpredictable times and in ways we can’t anticipate.

Research used to persuade

In this study, the researchers also asked bureaucrats in what ways the information they get through research has impacted specific issues they work on.

Many officials say they have not changed how they’ve handled any cases, and have never modified their understanding of a case, on the basis of research.

“So it’s rare that research has a direct impact on politics and practices,” says Thune.

However, this doesn’t mean that commissioned research just ends up in a desk drawer, she believes. Bureaucrats often use the research as a knowledge base and as support for their reasoning.

About half the bureaucrats confirm that they use research to justify decisions that have already been made.

Even more people say they use research to persuade critics.

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Read the Norwegian version of this article at forskning.no