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[MONTREUX, SWITZERLAND] Fear of political embarrassment has contributed to the gulf between policymakers and researchers in the field of health services, according to a leading expert in the field.

In turn, health researchers are not committed to multi-disciplinary research and do not reward researchers who engage in applied research by reaching out to policymakers, the First Global Symposium on Health Systems Research, in Switzerland, was told this week (16−19 November).

"Policymakers and health care providers are frightened of research that will embarrass them politically and publicly," said Colleen Flood, scientific director of the Institute of Health Services and Policy Research, Canada. In turn scientists have retreated to their 'ivory towers', she said.

But Tore Godal, special advisor to the prime minister of Norway, denied that politicians do not demand research.

Politicians want information to be available in a timeframe that can help them make decisions quickly and they articulate requests in ways that researchers may not like, he told the meeting, which aims to establish health systems research as the 'third pole' of medical research, alongside biomedical and clinical research.

A good information system is needed that politicians can tap into for sound decision-making, he said, adding that in the absence of such a system "all important decisions are taken on the basis of incomplete information".

Politicians should recognise the importance of evidence as the basis of decision-making, he said, and researchers should increase the supply of research to ensure maximum evidence is available to decision-makers.

Researchers should be providing "timely, policy-relevant, quality research evidence" and an "expedited knowledge synthesis", Flood said.

She described her institute's 'best brain exchange' initiative: one-day meetings that bring together the best researchers and top decision-makers in a particular subject.

"Policymakers define the topic and the event is tailored to their needs," Flood said. "Politics may mean decision-makers may not follow through but at least it is not because they were not well informed."

An evaluation showed that the programme has had an impact on decision-makers, some of whom highly valued the research inputs.

Rene Lowensen, director of the Training and Research Support Centre, Zimbabwe, said that low- and middle- income countries face several challenges in building links between researchers and policymakers.

The influence and focus of international donor organisations can overly dictate research priorities and so can the top-down, hierarchical approach to setting the health research agenda.

Research from those countries rarely makes it to international bibliographic databases.

Other challenges include resource and institutional problems, and the digital divide, which limits access to information.

T.V. Padma is blogging from The First Global Symposium on Health Systems Research