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Nov 23, 2023 | by What Works Centre for Wellbeing

“More research is needed…” The role of ARIs.

“More research is needed” is often the conclusion of research, but what specifically do we need to do next? 

Areas of research interest (ARIs) provide guidance about what evidence we need in order to answer some of society’s biggest questions and improve lives. Similarly, our research recommendations summarised in our briefings also offer this link between insights and action.

Here, we discuss what ARIs are, their effectiveness, how we use or respond to them, as well as signposting where to find them.


What are ARIs?

Areas of Research Interest (ARIs) are statements of evidence needs that are published by government departments and arms-length bodies to make it easier for the research community to produce policy-relevant research. 

The UK Government requires all departments to update and publish these documents annually. They function to connect across departments and articulate priorities.

They are examples of ‘slow policymaking’, which will enable us to gain knowledge to make the swift decisions or ‘fast policymaking’ when needed in the near future. They help us to plan and look ahead to the next three to five years, if not further so that we can provide timely, robust evidence at the right step in the decision-making process. This supports the formation of longer term strategies, as each one can be moved forward by new information to inform direction.

Professor Chris Whitty, in a 2018 article, said: 

“Each [ARI] describes the main issues where research might help solve some of the main practical or policy challenges the department faces. They act as a starting point for a more effective dialogue between policy-makers and researchers.” 

Are ARIs effective?

ARIs are designed to facilitate policy making, help us to understand the direction of research, and connect research to policy. They offer a way for an organisation to share research interests externally, and also to communicate internally across departments. ARIs are ‘boundary spanning’ documents – bridging between sectors in the same way our evidence reports and briefings do.

Oliver, Boaz and Cuccato’s recent paper summarised that

“ARIs are a useful tool to illuminate, and begin to connect different parts of the research-policy system” but that “more can be done to make the ARIs discoverable and useable”. 

While ARIs are useful, they are not exhaustive and don’t provide a complete picture of research interest, and so are not the only guide to what we could investigate. 

Part of a learning system 

As a convener between researchers and policy makers, we can help join the dots between government, business or civil society, and research to support evidence-informed decision making.

Reviews 

What Works centres build the evidence base through generation and synthesis, helping policymakers have access to high-quality and relevant insights.

We discover what is known on a topic, what existing research tells us, and what evidence gaps exist so we can understand where to go next. This understanding is collected in the form of evidence reviews, such as:

The key findings and resulting recommendations are highlighted in supplementary outputs such as briefings and blogs.

We are able to update growing knowledge regularly, reflecting new and changing research and accelerate learning. For example, we revisited our places, spaces and social connections review to capture five more years of learning and assess how the evidence base has matured.

In starting to revisit and refresh our reviews to reflect updated evidence we are working towards ‘living’ evidence – as recommended by the Evidence Commission update 2023. This is where new and relevant insight is captured as soon as it becomes available and learnings are continuously incorporated into reviews to inform guidance and decision making.

Decoding

A 2023 qualitative study examining whether ARIs are an effective mechanism concluded that “understanding what was meant by a particular ARI sometimes involved ‘decoding’ work as part of the academic-policy engagement process.”  This is where we can help, by making ARIs more visible and accessible.

We periodically review and share wellbeing highlights from published ARIs and look at how we and our networks can collaboratively support departmental research priorities. 

Read our blog on the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities’ latest and ongoing priorities.

Guides and training

We provide guidance on developing and using robust research. This can help with the generation and response to ARIs. Our guidance includes:

Wellbeing ARIs

ARIs include areas of wellbeing research needs. If you want your research to have impact and relevance, these are a good place to look for questions.

There are a number of places where you can find ARIs related to wellbeing:

Keep an eye out for our forthcoming ARIs.

Use this search tool to find, browse or analyse ARIs from UK governmental bodies.

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