Bridging Research and Policy During a Pandemic: Adjusting social science’s policy strategies in response to COVID-19

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From a blog post written by Taylor Scott and Cagla Giray for the COVID-19 "Expert Insights" blog hosted by the Social Science Research Institute at Penn State.

When COVID-19 hit, everyone's lives were turned upside down. This is no different for policymakers and those who interact with them, including researchers. This post provides an overview of the Research-to-Policy Collaboration(RPC) and its timely adaptation to improve the use of research evidence in law during the pandemic.

What is the Research-to-Policy Collaboration?

Research shows that policymakers' use of evidenceis facilitated by access to timely and relevant science that corresponds with their current policy agenda as well as collaborative interactions with researchers themselves. That's why the RPC was developed and designed to facilitate working relationships between researchers and congressional offices. This replicable, theory-based model builds the capacity of the scientific community to appropriately respond to policymakers' need for scientific evidence. This occurs within the context of Rapid Response Networks that coalesce scholars into distributed groups of substantive experts able to respond to policymaker requests rapidly and effectively. This network development involves:

(1) cataloging researcher expertise and availability

(2) providing formal training and experiential learning around policy engagement

(3) embedding a research-to-policy fellow to facilitate communication between researchers and legislative offices

Policy requests are then elicited through needs assessments of legislative offices. This provides researchers with opportunities to engage in a rapid response process to answer questions that legislative staff may have about their area of research expertise (e.g., etiology, examples of successful interventions or challenges in practice). This often results in requests for production of policy briefs and factsheets, congressional briefings and testimony as well as requests to review or provide legislative language for bill drafting. All activities are carefully monitored to support appropriate exchange of information. No lobbying occurs as part of this model.

In 2019, we had the opportunity to scale and expand the use of this approach so that we could study its impact with a randomized controlled trial. Preliminary findings have yet to be released, but we're certainly excited by early indicators that such interactions may have the potential to strengthen the use of research evidence in legislative language. Our current Rapid Response Network of over 500 researchers has engaged with over 150 congressional offices in the last year leading to a number of congressional briefings, policy briefs and requested contributions to child and family legislation. We anticipate that we will continue to engage researchers in rapid response processes as they relate to COVID-19 and other policy issues for the remainder of this year, notwithstanding virtual adaptations.

How did the RPC adapt to COVID-19?

The salience of interactions for influencing policy is no different for the current crisis than before. Interactions are key to deriving meaningful implications from complex scientific findings. We can fully expect that interactions with policymakers are going to have a stronger more meaningful impact than merely disseminating research evidence alone. I want to be clear that both are vitally important. We need scientists to communicate with the public to build public will for change - which has been paramount in explaining the rationale behind the monumental upheaval of economic infrastructures caused by social distancing. We also need to inspire trust between the sciences, the public, and the officials that represent the public interest. That can only come from outreach and engagement.

Adapting through new focus areas: To date, the RPC’s focus has largely involved translating child and family policy implications based on social science. Due to the sweeping implications of the pandemic, there are many intersections between existing social issues and COVID-19 that require policymakers’ attention. For example, how to support families facing domestic violence when shelters were closed, resources for homeless population s, or in what ways racial health disparitiesare exacerbated by the crisis. Although necessarily a lot of attention has gone into the biomedical implications for viral transmission and containment, the social issues also require a concerted response from the scientific community. Importantly, we also do not yet have evidence-based practice for addressing social issues amid the crisis, but can draw from lessons learned prior to the pandemic to inform policymakers. Accordingly, since the beginning of the outbreak, the RPC has coordinated researchers in the Rapid Response Network to produce and disseminate fact sheets, including research-informed and innovative recommendations on a range of social policy issues. Some examples include: can telehealth be used to address or support substance use sobriety or opioid risk mitigation, how policies can help sustain healthcare workforce and their families , how can we learn from efforts to raise awareness about exploitation so that victims of violence or human trafficking can alert responders in real time?

Adapting through new styles of interaction: Congress has very traditional norms for business and interaction - including firm handshakes, Rolodex for business cards, and pen to paper note taking. So their use of digital media was very minimal prior to the pandemic, but all policy actors have had to adapt their standard ways of operating to support social distancing. Moreover, congressional staff were overwhelmed with not just the demand to move towards telework, and not just the demand to immediately understand the implications of the virus, but a lot of their attention has been required to directly respond to constituents in crisis during the shelter-in-place orders and in the midst of economic decline. The RPC quickly realized that we needed to adapt to the crisis by addressing policymakers interest areas related to COVID-19; however, we also realized the influx in demands for congressional attention meant that we needed to provide support and focus on capacity building while Congress worked to enact relief packages in an unprecedented time. This meant not only changing the manner in which we intended to interact (i.e., virtually), but also building capacity to respond to myriad implications of the crisis.

Adapting through knowledge expansion: We quickly began to identify additional researchers interested in contributing their knowledge for policymakers and to date have recruited over 100 additional researchers who were specifically interested in supporting a response to COVID-19. We began a series of fact sheets, piloted a virtual research panel for state and federal legislative audiences, and pioneered a legislative e-newsletter for distributing research relevant for policy issues affected by the pandemic. The distribution is not only an exciting motivator for researchers to engage in the policy process, but also provides an excellent opportunity for us to study science communication strategies and impact. As our efforts continue to evolve, we have begun to do virtual needs assessments with congressional offices to ask how their priorities have shifted and in what ways researchers can be supportive. This will inform the development of future fact sheets for distribution beyond the initial requesting office. This therefore creates a feedback loop that theoretically may improve the potential impact of research dissemination because the content “pulls” input from policymakers, rather than “pushing”concepts that they may find irrelevant.

We are hoping to test these theories further, and in the meantime working to respond rapidly to these interest areas by engaging researchers in both translating relevant science as well as interacting with legislative staff in virtual formats. We continue to conduct needs assessment with legislative staff in order to identify current policy priorities on social policy issues and to be a non-partisan resource for them. Our initial needs assessments already demonstrate that congressional staff are attempting to juggle both COVID-19 priorities and longstanding policy goals. We foresee working on issues that are pertinent to the current crisis such as telehealth, contact tracing, economic uncertainty, support to healthcare workforce and waivers for e-prescribing regulations pertaining to medically assisted treatments. At the same time, Congress continues to grapple with myriad issues involving families, including violence prevention, homelessness, support for veteran families and enhanced military readiness, adoption policies, and racial health and economic disparities.

Recommendations to Continue Advancement of Research-Policy Bridge

We can continue to test the boundaries for facilitating researcher-policymaker partnerships by encouraging interactions across a physical divide and leverage modern tele-communications. This includes web-based meetings with congressional staff, virtual events, and e-communications. However, this bridging work inherently requires engagement of multiple parties who actively seek opportunities for collaboration. Therefore, some key recommendations stem from this work:

  1. Researchers who want to improve the impact of scholarly work should look for opportunities to be at the table rather than the sidelines. Policy engagement can take multiple formats, including direct consultative formats or indirect approaches that pressure policymakers to change problematic policies. Both types of approaches can be strategic depending on the issue and the stage of policy development. However, we anticipate that policymakers’ use of research evidence is specifically facilitated by trusting interpersonal connections with researchers themselves.
  2. Policymakers eager to advance effective policies should look for opportunities to engage researchers in an advisory capacity at various phases of policy development. Oftentimes, researchers are ecstatic to receive such a request from a decision maker. However, these invited opportunities are seldom and typically involve researchers who are highly visible, or “at the table” already so to speak. The involvement of more researcher perspectives may have the potential to strengthen innovative problem solving, as well as circumventing unexpected systemic challenges of proposed policies (e.g., instilling mechanisms for quality control and accountability). Therefore, researchers as a resource goes far beyond that of merely synthesizing research or acting as a talking head for briefings or hearings. Of course, we can do those things too, but the beauty of partnership has unforeseen benefits and I’ve seen really amazing and dynamic ways that researchers have supported policymaking at various stages of the process.
  3. The gap between research and policy communities reflects systemic challengesthat should be targeted by research institutions and grant makers. Research institutions should provide support or reinforce researchers’ policy engagement; however, current tenure and promotion criteria typically only incentivize insular research communications (e.g., peer reviewed publications) rather than scholarly engagement and impact. Awards and recognition could also be provided by professional associations. Moreover, research training programs could improve the development of both scholarly and non-scholarly writing skills, as well as provide training on non-academic and policy partnerships. Grantmakers should not only shift expectations for scholars to translate research evidence in addition to generating new knowledge, but funding mechanisms should support partnership-building approaches with public audiences or decision makers. It’s not sufficient to just produce evidence and reports that go on the shelf, people need to interact to draw meaningful implications for impact – however, these activities take time and researchers need support for translation activities. There has been some promising movement of research institutions in reinforcing the time scholars spend on community engagement; however, much more is needed to shift scholarly norms.
  4. Also systemic in nature, policymaking entities could bolster evidence-based policy by enhancing research access, including original scientific papers, independent research syntheses, and direct correspondence with researchers themselves. Although the Congressional Research Servicesynthesizes research on select issues, per request, they do not provide direct access to original research articles, and most state lawmakers have far less capacity than federal legislators for accessing unbiased research syntheses. A move toward removing the firewall for government officials and their staff may improve transparency and increase policymaker access of original sources, but perusing a hundred abstracts is no replacement for the interactions that could help with “making sense” out of divergent findings and deriving implications. Therefore, mechanisms that broker researcher and policymaker interactions are a highly promising path forward for supporting the use of research evidence in policy.

People Mentioned in this Article

Taylor Scott Cagla Giray