Background: The interface between research and policymaking in low-income countries is highly complex. The ability of health systems research to influence policy processes in such settings face numerous challenges. Successful analysis of the research-policy interface in these settings requires understanding of contextual factors as well as key influences on the interface. Future Health Systems (FHS): Innovations for Equity is a consortium conducting research in six countries in Asia and Africa. One of the three cross-country research themes of the consortium is analysis of the relationship between research (evidence) and policy making, especially their impact on the poor; insights gained in the initial conceptual phase of FHS activities can inform the global knowledge pool on this subject.
Discussion: This paper provides a review of the research-policy interface in low-income countries and proposes a conceptual framework, followed by directions for empirical approaches. First, four developmental perspectives are considered: social institutional factors; virtual versus grassroots realities; science-society relationships; and construction of social arrangements. Building on these developmental perspectives three research-policy interface entry points are identified: 1. Recognizing policy as complex processes; 2. Engaging key stakeholders: decision-makers, providers, scientists, and communities; and 3. Enhancing accountability. A conceptual framework with three entry points to the research-policy interface - policy processes; stakeholder interests, values, and power; and accountability - within a context provided by four developmental perspectives is proposed. Potential empirical approaches to the research-policy interface are then reviewed. Finally, the value of such innovative empirical analysis is considered.
Conclusion: The purpose of this paper is to provide the background, conceptual framework, and key research directions for empirical activities focused on the research-policy interface in low income settings. The interface can be strengthened through such analysis leading to potential improvements in population health in low-income settings. Health system development cognizant of the myriad factors at the research-policy interface can form the basis for innovative future health systems.