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Known unknowns: improving the application of knowledge in social policy

Research is often focused on improving our knowledge base. But translating that work into good policy is a serious challenge in itself.


Although millions are spent conducting social research every year, putting the findings into practice often proves difficult. The K4U project sought to address this issue by examining major points of failure. “I think of this as study in the philosophy of social technology,” says Nancy Cartwright, K4U project coordinator. “Our aim is to figure out how to put knowledge to better use, to build more decent societies.” The K4U project brought together researchers from three institutes, the University of Durham and London School of Economics and Political Science in the United Kingdom, and Ca’ Foscari University in Italy. Together, the team examined six case studies of social interventions: international HIV/AIDS policies, British child welfare, EU mental health, reconfiguration in British health services, occupational health, work and well-being in Greater Manchester, United Kingdom, and climate services in a period of climate change. The case studies provided an opportunity to carry out conceptual and theoretical analysis, research on objectivity and deliberation, and an assessment of joined-up science knowledge. “There were various ways in which people were trying to put knowledge to use, and we wanted to look at where they had problems, where there were lacunae,” explains Cartwright. “Very often we saw there was knowledge available, but it was not in the main view or focus of the people doing the project and we seldom have a good understanding of how to put it all together.” For example, in the child welfare project, centred on the United Kingdom’s Signs Of Safety practice for children’s services, Cartwright’s team found that when a child dies, the usual procedure is to trace back to find who in Social Services is to blame.

A systems problem

Instead, “child protection is a systems problem,” explains K4U’s child protection expert Eileen Munro. “The system needs to be redesigned to make it harder for people to make mistakes.” In the case of international HIV/AIDS policies, Cartwright’s team found that local knowledge and systems knowledge were frequently not taken seriously, leading to “wasted efforts and spent hopes.” Similarly key workers in the Greater Manchester project on addressing the interplay of unemployment and mental health were failing to work effectively with each other, without realising this. “We all know it’s hard for different disciplines to work together, it’s a serious problem for joined-up thinking,” says Cartwright. “Lots of the problems we saw make sense in this context.”

Forecasting policy outcomes

Cartwright says her ambitions lie in bringing knowledge together to make better forecasts of policy outcomes. In particular, she highlights the limitations of using randomised controlled trials (RCTs) to inform this process. “Often what you find in the study is simply irrelevant to what can happen elsewhere. The underlying socio-economic and cultural systems are so different that they admit very different causal pathways.” She adds: “We have a very good methodology for learning about causal processes, but very little understanding of how to study the underlying systems that produce those causal processes.” The challenge now is to bring the findings of K4U itself into policy. “It’s a perennial problem with philosophy – it has a lot to offer to thinking about policy, but it’s really difficult to figure out how we get in a position to do that,” concludes Cartwright.


K4U, knowledge, HIV, AIDS, child welfare, Manchester, causal, pathways, mental health, unemployment

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