Congressional Use of Evidence Can Be Improved: Reflections from a Trial of the Research-to-Policy Collaboration Model
As we consider the state of domestic policymaking in the United States, it is easy to feel disillusioned about the role research evidence has played over the last few years. From denialism to misuse, science seems to be frustratingly politicized to the detriment of a healthy and equitable society. In many ways the policy and scientific communities have never felt more disconnected.
A bright spot for us during this time, with support from the Foundation, has been the opportunity to test a model that would bridge these two communities—ultimately improving the use of research evidence (URE) in child and family policymaking.
What Is the Research-to-Policy Collaboration Model?
The Research-to-Policy Collaboration (RPC) model integrates theory and practice from psychology, sociology, public health, communication, and political and prevention sciences, as well as public policy and finance. The model consists of capacity-building and collaboration activities for both researcher and policy audiences. Based on area of expertise, trained rapid response teams of researchers are matched with policymakers and their current policy priorities. RPC fundamentally serves as a behavioral intervention for both communities, implemented in partnership with professional associations and research institutions that serve as intermediaries for “brokering” researchers and policymakers. Drawing on an ecological systems approach, the model recognizes the many levels and incentive structures that influence a cascade of behaviors, which in turn lead toward or away from improved research use.
Nearly five years ago we completed a pilot of the RPC model, demonstrating its feasibility in successfully bringing together policymakers and scientists to interpret and apply research. Yet it still was unclear whether such collaborations improved the use of research in policymaking. To an even greater extent, we were uncomfortable with the fact that while we regularly extolled to policymakers the importance of evidence-based approaches (deemed so by rigorous experimentation), we used a model that itself had not undergone such evaluation. We challenged ourselves to experimentally test the RPC. With the support of the Foundation, we embarked on a randomized controlled trial—not of children or their families, but of our research colleagues and U.S. Congress itself.
What We Found
The study found that congressional offices that received RPC supports increased their value for scientific evidence. Specifically, their value for conceptual uses that inform the policy process itself was impacted. Further, we found that intervention offices introduced more bills referencing research evidence than the control offices.
We also found that researchers receiving RPC supports increased their knowledge of the policy process. They were more engaged with policymakers than their peers in the control group. Interestingly, they reported greater benefits to their own research programs due to engagement with policymakers.
We recently published these initial main effects from the study that reported on the RPC’s outcomes for both congressional offices and researchers who participated in the trial.
Lessons for the Field and Looking Ahead
The trial taught us that relationships between the research and policy communities are powerful. Collaborations thrive when researchers are realistic and pragmatic about the policy process and are willing to prioritize their outreach and work with others to reach consensus on research recommendations. For instance, the way the “sausage” is made can reflect the number of factors and stakeholders that influence policy beyond evidence alone. Improving URE is a team sport. It requires the input of many, along with individuals willing to take ownership of the process while listening to all.
The timing of responses cannot be emphasized enough. We sought to address this longstanding issue by creating networks of researchers with overlapping expertise in the hope that someone would be available to answer the call at all times. The system sometimes worked well, and we particularly would like to thank the team that received a day-before-Thanksgiving request that required a 48-hour turnaround. However, even with the network in place, demand often outstripped the supply of researchers able to respond. The policy process waits for no one. Future efforts in this area must continue the work to modernize scientific incentive structures—increasing the value for and prioritization of policy engagement. Otherwise, science will continue to be an afterthought.
The study taught us a lot about what research topics offices want to hear about and which researchers speak up the most. At times we were forced to confront issues of inequity head on, which obliged us to interrogate our own processes and behaviors. Issues of equity in policy engagement and/or URE largely have been understudied, and we find ourselves determined to understand whether our model simply amplifies majority voices or whether pathways for policy influence can lift up the minoritized and marginalized among us. (Additional analyses give us hope for the latter.) Similar to the way we sought to systematically study the model’s efficacy, the URE field must do so with a crucial eye toward equity. It also must bridge activities that involve lifting racially minoritized researchers’ contributions in policy conversations.
As we look back, we realize how much this work has taught us about conducting research on improving URE. In particular, not only is experimentation possible but it greatly enriches the science. It can make the work harder, but it also gives us greater confidence to assess what does and does not work. In the opportunity we had to learn about both, we ultimately found a message of hope. Our field can create strategies to change policymakers’ behavior around scientific evidence. Even in otherwise dark times, improving URE in the U.S. Congress is not only possible, but within reach.
Read more about this study in “Lawmakers’ use of scientific evidence can be improved,” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118(9), March 2, 2021.
For more information about participating in the RPC as a researcher, visit www.research2policy.org
For more on critical race perspectives on URE, register for the webinar “Politics, Power, and the Use of Research Evidence”, to be held on March 10, 2021.