Utilisation of Social Science Research in Policy Development and Program Review


The aim of this project (2010-2013) was to examine research utilisation within public sector agencies in Australia at both state and national levels, focusing on agencies whose responsibilities include human service policies and programs. The central issue investigated was the processes, practices and circumstances that facilitate or hinder the uptake and adoption of academic social research within policy contexts. This project serves to inform the Australian government, human service policy divisions and the academic community about enhancing the uptake of social research and ways to improve research partnerships between social scientists and external partners.

Research is fundamental to the development of evidence-based policy. Commitment to better use of rigorous research evidence in the formation of social policy has resulted in governments in many developed countries looking to social science research to help shape and achieve their social policy objectives.

Despite this enhanced collaborative context, it is unclear how and under what conditions social science research actually informs public policy decision-making. Academics frequently argue that policy-makers ignore the research they produce, while policy-makers argue that often academic research is irrelevant to their needs.

While the notion of EBPP may be attractive to government leaders, there can often be a gap between the rhetoric and reality of policy actually being evidence-based. Hence there is a pressing need to clarify how social science research informs the tasks of policy development and program review, as envisaged by the EBPP agenda, and identify factors that influence the use of social research by policy and program managers.


The project measured and assessed research utilisation from the perspectives of both academic social scientists and policy professionals. We define “research” as forms of systematic empirical inquiry, including quantitative and qualitative approaches, aimed at theory building or testing, data collection, analysis and evaluation. Such a definition is deliberately broad because one of the core aims of the project was to understand the relative authority accorded to different types of social research by policy-makers.

In light of the international analysis we aimed to address the following three key questions in relation to Australia:

  • In what ways is social science research currently used within policy contexts?
  • What conditions and circumstances support and hinder the use of social science research?
  • Are there models for enhancing the policy-relevance and utilisation of social research knowledge?

 The project was divided into 4 phases involving the following data collection methods:

  • Phase 1: A targeted survey of Australian social scientists
  • Phase 2: A targeted survey of policy personnel
  • Phase 3: Interviews with a selection of academic respondents
  • Phase 4: Interviews with a selection of policy personnel