We have now come to the end of our seven years of core funding. So, what next? Firstly, before offering some ideas, it is good to pause and thank the Economic and Social Research Council, the National Lottery Community Fund, and Nesta. Not just for their funding, but also for their guidance. We met regularly as a Funders Forum – along with the Cabinet Office What Works Team – and their advice in the initial set up and growth stages was immensely valuable.
The next stage of our journey is going to need a good hard look at where we can add value. It is easy to fall into the depths of despond when reading the doom-mongering of certain news websites. Why bother with evidence if basic facts – let alone high quality social science – are under threat? Evidence can have some dangerous friends. Some alt-right institutions have cherry-picked or distorted scientific evidence to prop up racism, gender inequality or anti-vaccination movements, creating a misinformation virus across WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter. “Post-truth” was declared the 2016 word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries. Three years later, post-truth politics is a phrase that never seems to have gone away, and has no plans to leave any time soon.
But the alternative to gloom, is active resistance. We need as many pro-evidence champions as possible. No single organisation, leader, or political party can change things. But larger coalitions of the willing can make a difference. It seems to us that any chance to convene and cajole organisations into a positive and practical use of evidence is a good thing.
However, we should not be politically naive and dismissive of populism and the public. We need to check ourselves, and remind evidence-proselytizers like us of the limits of data, and confront the reality of street-level experience. On that front, it is so heartening to see that a new Health Foundation and ESRC £15m evidence and implementation centre on adult social care demands co-production with frontline professionals and those with lived experience of care. We need more of this close involvement with citizens and practitioners, less desk-based distance from the frontline.
The only downside of a wider evidence movement is we can trip over each other – and duplicate. There are now six What Works Centres covering children and youth outcomes: the Early Intervention Foundation; Education Endowment Foundation; What Works for Children’s Social Care; Centre for Transforming Access and Student Outcomes in Higher Education; and affiliates The Youth Endowment Fund and Youth Futures Fund. In this dense ecosystem – or what Professor David Gough at the EPPI Centre describes as a messy ‘evidence swamp’ – there may need to be mergers – such as the move of Project Oracle into the Centre for Youth Impact – or more support in hosting new entities in old bodies, such as the Family Justice Observatory now firmly ensconced within Nuffield Foundation.
Part of wading through the evidence swamp is knowing that you work in a world of complexity. We are part of a dynamic system and no intervention or organisation works alone. Everything is related to everything else. I look forward to seeing the soon-to-be released update of the Medical Research Councils’ guidance on evaluating complex interventions. For those outside health, there will be a new annex dealing with complex systems in Her Majesty’s Treasury’s bible on evaluation the Magenta Book. There has been a look of talk of these approaches, including a Government-funded Centre for the Evaluation of Complexity Across the Nexus Centre, and it feels time that these methods become more mainstream.
In 2020, we hope to help with some of these collaborations and joint endeavours via the creation of the Evidence Quarter in the heart of Whitehall. However, the potential pitfall of that geography is that it sits inside the London Bubble and we need to do everything possible to reach out to others across the UK, not just in Stormont, Edinburgh and Cardiff, but also at the local level. In future, we hope to work with the Nesta offices in Scotland and Wales, learn from our Evidence Exchange project with Carnegie UK Trust, and build on our past relationship with the Centre for Effective Services in Northern Ireland and Queen’s University Belfast. But none of that comes without cost. We have been very fortunate to have received funding for staffing across the UK over the past 7 years. That capacity has come to an end. Genuine UK working needs time and money – and credible staff on the ground – not tokenistic work from outside London.
And what of the immediate future? After digging around in all the available evidence of need, we will create a new strategy in 2020. A core part of the future will be working with Nesta colleagues – and particularly the new Nesta CEO, Ravi Gurumurthy who comes from working with David Milliband at International Rescue Committee in New York. We will see how we can be part of Nesta’s next five-year strategy. That may be inside Nesta or on the outside: we have been considering spinning-out, such as to a university, so that we can boost our research capacity – but we need to see how that fits with Ravi’s ideas for Nesta. In Spring 2020, we will also be looking to announce a new four-year project across universities and government institutions to help researchers influence policy. Whatever does make up our strategy – and we want to have another evidence-informed Theory of Change – working alongside others is key, and what we have learnt over the past is that you need to build deeper relationships, and not be too thinly spread. Whatever else falls on us from Westminster or the White House, this is a good cause and worth fighting for, now more than ever.