NSF funding to bolster research communication strategies project

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State’s Research-to-Policy Collaboration (RPC) is expanding a project to better respond to legislators’ needs for social and behavioral research related to the coronavirus pandemic with new funding from the National Science Foundation.

A pilot of the project began earlier this year when the RPC received funding through Penn State’s Coronavirus Research Seed Fund. The project seeks to understand ways that scientists can better communicate scientific evidence about the pandemic with policymakers.

After this proof of concept, the project was awarded additional funding from the William T. Grant foundation to test science communication strategies and impact regarding inequities exacerbated by COVID-19. The RPC tested these strategies to enhance the perceived relevance of timely research evidence during times of crisis when information volume is high.

“The pandemic is threatening to widen inequities among vulnerable youth and families,” said principal investigator Taylor Scott, associate director of the RPC and research assistant professor in the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center. “There has never been a more crucial time for scientists to communicate with policymakers about strategies for reducing these inequities among the academic, social, behavioral, and economic outcomes of this population.”

The RPC also met with legislative aides to assess policymakers’ needs, facilitate researchers’ policy engagement, and host virtual briefings with state and federal lawmaker audiences. This led the RPC to adapt to the demand for facilitating virtual interactions between researchers and policymakers, which also included supporting researchers in developing more than 20 one- to two-page electronic fact sheets on topics spanning from violence to health disparities, and disseminating the sheets to thousands of state and federal policymakers.

“With the nation in crisis, we needed to rethink how we connect with policy makers and respond to their requests,” said Scott. “With the development of the fact sheets, we were able to optimize the reach of scientific messages about COVID-19. Using this strategy, fact sheets are now being opened by over 500 legislative contacts.”

With new funding from NSF, the RPC will be able to lengthen the science communication effort to test even more theories related to how to improve accessibility of research related to the pandemic.

“We'll draw upon social science theories such as persuasion tactics, insider-outsider theory, compare negative and positive bias, and solutions versus problem focused messages,” Scott said. “The NSF funding will allow us to test impact not just at the federal level, but also examine our impact at the state level. We'll be able to dig deeper into the data to understand how research is being used in different contexts, including equity-related legislation as well as other legislative efforts related to COVID-19.”

The team will also examine different messaging conditions via email and open- and click-rates and explore potential impact by assessing how research gets used in legislative bills and public statements. The RPC’s work has the potential to shorten the time between scientific innovation and use in decision making, benefiting society as a whole.

“Most researchers don’t have training to disseminate research information. They want to talk to policymakers, and the RPC acts as the broker, the connector, to legislative aides to provide them with nonpartisan, research-based information,” said Scott.

This process of disseminating research and testing science communication strategies will be made replicable so that it can be adapted to different topic areas and used to respond during other times of crisis. “Given the magnitude of the current crisis caused by COVID-19, it has arguably never been more important for scientists to communicate to policymakers their research on virus transmission, prevention, and social and economic consequences that families face,” Scott said.

Housed under the Evidence-to-Impact Collaborative (EIC), a unit of Penn State’s Social Science Research Institute, the RPC is a model for bridging research and policy by emphasizing partnerships between research experts and legislative staff.

Other researchers on the project include co-principal investigators Max Crowley, associate professor of human development and family studies and director of the EIC; Elizabeth Long, RPC postdoctoral research scholar; and Cagla Giray, RPC postdoctoral policy associate.

The work is also being supported by the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences, the Social Science Research Institute, the Materials Research Institute, the Institute for Computational and Data Sciences and the Institutes of Energy and the Environment.

This story originally appeared in Penn State News

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