OBJECTIVES:We sought the perspectives of lead public health officials working to improve health equity in the USA regarding the drivers of scientific evidence use, the supply of scientific evidence and the gap between their evidentiary needs and the available scientific evidence. DESIGN:We conducted 25 semistructured qualitative interviews (April 2017 to June 2017) with lead public health officials and their designees. All interviews were transcribed and thematically analysed. SETTING:Public health departments from all geographical regions in the USA. PARTICIPANTS:Participants included lead public health officials (20) and their designees (5) from public health departments that were either accredited or part of the Big Cities Health Coalition. RESULTS:Many respondents were using scientific evidence in the context of grant writing. Professional organisations and government agencies, rather than specific researchers or research journals, were the primary sources of scientific evidence. Respondents wanted to see more locally tailored cost-effectiveness research and often desired to participate in the planning phase of research projects. In addition to the scientific content recommendations, respondents felt the usefulness of scientific evidence could be improved by simplifying it and framing it for diverse audiences including elected officials and community stakeholders. CONCLUSIONS:Respondents are eager to use scientific evidence but also need to have it designed and packaged in ways that meet their needs.