There is a mismatch between broad holistic questions typically posed in policy formation and narrow reductionist questions that are susceptible to scientific method. This inhibits the two-way flow of information at the science-policy interface and weakens the impact of applied ecology on environmental policy. 2. We investigate the approaches to building policy in the health services as a model to help establish a framework in applied ecology and environmental management by which reductionist science can underpin decision making at the policy level. 3. A comparison of policy documents in the health and environmental sectors reveals many similarities in identifying approaches and specific interventions that might achieve policy objectives. The difference is that in the health services, information on the effectiveness of potential interventions is far more readily available through the collaborative process of systematic review. 4.Synthesis and applications. Decision makers are increasingly looking to produce policies that are shaped by evidence through evidence-based policy making. The approach that we outline here provides a framework for structuring systematic reviews to deliver the evidence on key policy issues in a way that will see a faster return and provide better use of the systematic review methodology in environmental management.