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Underuse of research

David Blunkett

'We need to be able to rely on social science and social scientists to tell us what works and why, and what types of policy initiatives are likely to be most effective. And we need better ways of ensuring that those who want this information can get it easily and quickly.'

Blunkett, D.(2000)

'Evidence can be ignored, it can be used as a cosmetic to dress up what has already been agreed, or it can be used as the ground on which an inquisitive, experimental approach is built.'

Little, M & Mount, K. (1998)

These two quotes, from very different sources sum up the challenge for social care workers, students, and for researchers too. They also demonstrate the gap that exists between the worlds of practice and research that must be bridged if research is to be better used, and is to be experienced as more useful in services for vulnerable people. The ultimate judges of success are the customers - those people in the community who need and/or receive social care services. The outcomes for them and their experience of the services and interventions offered are the litmus test of satisfaction and effectiveness.

Using research knowledge effectively relies on a sequence of events, actions and people. If any part fails the whole is unlikely to be realised. This is a particular challenge within social care where these 'chains' are long, drawn out and often terminally thin. At its simplest:

  • researchers must do research that others can and wish to use
  • awareness of research needs to get to those most likely to be able to make use of it,
  • research findings should be presented in forms that enhance their accessibility and usability.

Those who practice can benefit from the knowledge afforded by research. Practitioners need to:

  • recognise the value of research
  • be able to link research knowledge with other influences on their work
  • be critical in their use of the research
  • understand its impact on their subsequent work.

In reality there are many more links than this but the key point remains the same - attending to each link in the chain is as important as having a clear understanding of the whole.

Four factors that inhibit effective use of research in practice are described below.

Problems in accessing research

The false separation between the worlds of research and practice can make it difficult for those providing services to access the research information that they need. Findings are often immersed within heavyweight textbooks or in articles that are published in journals that are hard to access or not social work themed. These may be aimed at an academic audience rather than for those 'on the front line'. Recent investment at national level in social care research and its dissemination and development has resulted in a more coherent picture of research evidence, both in subject matter and in availability. However the explosion of web-based resources can be as taxing as a lack of information.

Difficulties of access and filtering, however, are sometimes used as an excuse not to draw on research evidence. More academic journals now also reach out to a practice audience and the plethora of Internet resources are demonstrated by the listing in this resource.

A big issue for practitioners and students is access to computers and lack of time to do the searching required for locating and sifting through research findings. This problem has to be addressed by changes in organisational culture that in turn will result in more equipment and time being made available to make evidence-based practice a reality.

Other things that might help:

  • greater clarity and simplicity in explanations of research methods
  • more short, peer-reviewed research reports and fewer 'great tomes'
  • identification of a research review methodology that is less 'expert' led and more 'system' led,
  • the Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE).


Promoting a research-minded, evidence-based culture

Understanding the meaning of evidence based practice is central to resolving the historical lack of a research-minded culture in social work and social care. A definition of ‘evidence-based’ from the health world has been adapted by Research in Practice (opens in new window) for social care work with children and families. It is defined as practice that is grounded in sound knowledge about the needs of service users informed by:

  • the best available evidence of what is effective
  • the practice expertise of professionals
  • the experience and preferences of service users.

This definition recognises that decision making includes a melting pot of issues, which should embrace:

practice expertise

the best available 'evidence'



experiential knowledge




user views


Good decision making is the interplay between all these elements, but importantly should include the element of evidence, which is all too often forgotten or not made explicit in practice. However the definition is overtly respectful of the interplay of practice expertise and the evidence.

A lack of confidence

The novice research user needs to have confidence that he or she can make informed judgements about the usefulness of the research available to them. The development of such confidence is a task for research users, researchers and those who commission research to tackle.

Roy Parker's categorisation of research findings is still relevant and may help you to be clearer about a hierarchy of evidence for studies using qualitative, quantitative or mixed method approaches. This might mean:

Tentative findings make the reader pause, take stock and ask questions
Indicative the findings are inconclusive or not generalisable, so practitioners or students need to recognise their specificity
Conclusive findings refer to a sample size and/or length of study period that provides a high level of reliability

These categories highlight the interplay between professional judgement and research. They indicate just how much influence evidence should reasonably provide. Currently, few studies in social care meet the highest levels of reliability. Herein lies the significance of using 'the best available' evidence. However, when findings are replicated across a number of studies they do merit a greater degree of reliability. Roy Parker's finding, first published as long ago as 1966 (Parker), showing a clear association between placement breakdown and the presence of the foster carers' own children in the home has since been reinforced by a range of other studies. Sadly this highly reliable finding also provides an unwelcome example of how service providers continue at times to ignore this evidence.

Staff need help in making informed judgements about the reliability of research findings. Discussion of the meaning of research for practice is a vital means of illuminating the process and can assist in building the confidence needed to apply research findings to practice.

Opportunities for such dialogue are more achievable for many practitioners away from pressures of day to day work, for example at conferences and training sessions.

Dissemination is not enough

Dissemination refers to communicating research findings and messages for policy and practice. It says nothing about what could or should be done after that. Dissemination is a stepping stone on the way to using research; it is not an indicator of use. Experience in the healthcare field has shown that there is no magic research wand that produces change in practice. There is a need for strategies to encourage:

  • ownership and assimilation of research ideas
  • implementation into practice
  • impact on delivery of services

These are influenced by the work environment and the organisational culture. For more information see NHS (1999), Bullock et al (1998) and Walshe and Ham (1997) and also see Changing practice within this resource.

Organisations need to be flexible, experimental, and imaginative if practitioners are to adopt and implement research in their practice - see Batestone and Edwards (1996), Muir Gray (1997), Eve et al (1997) and Pinkerton (1998). Bullock et al (1998) describe the workplace as the soil that enables the seeds of good research to grow into evidence based practice. The working environment therefore is crucial to making evidence based practice happen. The clear message from research is that researchers and research users have to work in partnership within the practice world. Not only should research inform practice but in turn evidence based practice and innovative research techniques need to emerge from developmental work with agencies and inform the research arena.

Fact file


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