The Science Behind the RPC
While studies have revealed a great deal of insight about why and how policymakers use research, there is still a great need to build on those insights by
deploying an approach that addresses known barriers to evidence-based policy.
Primary barriers include:
- A disconnect between research translation efforts and current policy opportunities
- Too few interactions between policymakers and researchers
- Limited training and engagement opportunities among researchers
- Little emphasis on decision-makers’ needs in the research production process.
When developing the RPC, we sought to support researchers’ development of confidence and skills for engaging with legislative offices while also providing structured opportunities for exercising those skills by facilitating collaborative interactions around real-time policy priorities. We begin the process of facilitating relevant collaborative interactions by asking legislative staff about current policy efforts and interests. The RPC draws on lessons learned from several research translation approaches, but what makes us unique is that we prepare and broker connections between policymakers and researchers with direct subject-matter expertise.
What the RPC Does
Relevant Policy Opportunities
Studies point to policymakers’ need for research evidence that is relevant to current policy priorities and available in real time so that it can be leveraged within discrete policy windows. These rapidly evolving, narrow windows of opportunity for policy change are guided by socio-political factors such as public opinion, media coverage, national crises, and the priorities of elected leaders.
When the policy agenda suddenly shifts, policymakers often turn to “experts,” which presents an opportunity for researchers to influence what policy solutions are considered for addressing social issues by identifying those with the greatest evidence of effectiveness.
Successfully leveraging such opportunities requires recognizing the complex factors that contribute to the decision-making process, including dominant values that dictate what solutions are deemed acceptable by current elected officials and their constituents. Based on the notion of the policy window,
the RPC seeks to connect policymakers with usable scientific information at critical times so that researchers can filter science-based information according to policymakers’ interests and needs.
Training and Coaching with Hands-on Engagement
While interactions are critical to bridging science and policy, the facilitation of such interactions must be tactful to avoid potentially aversive and/or ineffective interactions resulting from misunderstanding one another’s divergent normative behaviors, attitudes, and values. Because positive interactions between researchers and policymakers are critical,
RPC training seeks to increase researchers’ understanding and empathy regarding how policymakers use research, including the ideological dimensions of decision making.
We recognize the notion that researchers and policymakers are actors in “two communities” that are characterized by differing values and languages; therefore, training in policy and effective research translation may help researchers overcome cultural barriers by adapting to the policy context. Moreover, Researchers generally receive little training on legislative processes, norms, and strategies, which remains a barrier to effective translational efforts. There is a need to support researchers’ development of knowledge, awareness, and relevant skills around interacting with policymakers in order to reduce cultural “clashes” that contribute to miscommunication and mutual mistrust.
While the RPC training has demonstrated success in improving researchers’ perceptions of their own knowledge, skills, and confidence engaging with policymakers, training alone is insufficient for successful researcher engagement with policymakers.
The RPC seeks to reinforce lessons learned through training by facilitating structured opportunities for interacting and collaborating with policymakers because learning through hands-on experiences has the potential to strengthen researchers’ skills beyond instruction alone.
Furthermore, the RPC coaches researchers during their initial application of policy skills by observing, providing constructive feedback, and modeling behavior because coaching can support implementation of new skills and strategies. We believe that such guided application of policy skills can strengthen collaborations short-term and strengthen researchers’ policy engagement long-term, beyond their involvement in the RPC.
Collaborative Interactions Between Researchers and Policymakers
At the crux of the RPC is the notion that trusting relationships with researchers is a prominent facilitator of policymakers’ use of research, as this has been demonstrated in numerous studies that were part of a systematic review. Such interactions are necessary for a number of reasons, including burdensome information overload that contributes to the tendency for policymakers to “read people” rather than reports. Additionally, making sense of research evidence is an iterative process that involves discussing, achieving consensus, and reflecting on how knowledge may be relevant for specific situations. Deliberation during meetings can support the development of implications as discussion allows stakeholders to jointly draw conclusions and develop strategies that address specific problems or circumstances. Since direct discussions of research can reinforce relationships deemed necessary to advance evidence-based policy,
the RPC organizes face-to-face meetings between Rapid Response Team members, legislative staff and members of Congress.
Finally, trust is critical because perceived credibility guides policymakers’ inquiry, acquisition, and use of information; and mutual trust allows collaborators to learn from one another and expands upon the solutions that are considered.
Because trust and meaningful implications from a mixed body of research take time to develop, the RPC emphasizes ongoing collaboration rather than single meetings between researchers and legislative staff. In this context, collaboration produces cooperative interactions between stakeholders, making it possible to work together toward a common goal. Collaborative processes have the potential to build trusting and mutually respectful relationships when there is effective communication, information-sharing, as well as joint and equitable decision-making—in which both parties are valued for their unique expertise. Not only can collaboration encourage policymakers’ use of research, but future research may be informed by and become responsive to the policy context.
Policymakers’ Use of Research Evidence
Policymakers’ use of research is shaped by a broad array of factors and decision-making processes. Attempts to explain these have been captured by several conceptual models. The traditional knowledge-driven model posits that policymakers passively consume objective facts; however, this overlooks interpersonal factors.
Interpersonal mechanisms may be most impactful because interactions support the transfer of knowledge that is embedded in researchers’ skill sets.
Another way research is used is political, which researchers most often deplore because this involves embracing confirmation bias to justify an existing position. But there are other ways policymakers can use evidence that are more agreeable to many researchers, including
Directly informing policy decisions (instrumental use)
Indirectly influencing the way policymakers think about issues, problems, or solutions (conceptual use)
Requiring a level of evidence via funding or regulatory levers (imposed use)
The RPC trains researchers to understand the myriad of factors that policymakers must consider, especially emphasizing the need to:
empathize with the ideological factors that represent the values and perspectives of the voters who elected the official to represent those perspectives in the public policy sphere.
It is critical for researchers to understand these decision-making processes if they are to empathetically and effectively engage in collaborative relationships around current policy priorities.
It is critical to overcome the inherent difficulties in integrating evidence into legislation and to understand how provisions are interpreted and implemented by the executive branch. Because legislators frequently pull from other sources when writing legislative language, including existing laws and drafted language offered by advocacy organizations, the RPC draws from previously drafted evidence-based policies when reviewing or generating legislative language in collaboration with policymakers and their staff.
Prior work shows that collaborations such as these have supported the development of provisions that have written evidence-based strategies into law
(see Maternal, Infant, Early Childhood Home Visiting Initiative; Teen Pregnancy Prevention). This is because interactions are a key vehicle for supporting the inclusion of research evidence in new laws.
Since much energy in bridging research and policy is spent in “pushing” or improving the dissemination of existing research, often neglected are ways in which research should be informed by policy and practice. Few supports are in place to help researchers proactively consider policy and practice implications prior to study development, even though research that is responsive to policymakers’ needs may be more likely to be used by policymakers in the future. In contrast, Policy-informed research adjusts to prevailing policy priorities, shaping the questions that are investigated and how results are interpreted and communicated.
A cultural shift toward more policy-informed research is needed, including the way it is produced, interpreted, and communicated—and opportunities for researcher-policymaker collaboration may support this shift.
We believe that the RPC can support the shift in researchers’ attention to policymakers’ needs by facilitating empathetic interactions that enable researchers to observe current policy demands, respond by translating existing research, and vicariously identify policymakers unmet needs for research. Researchers involved in the RPC can draw on these experiences to justify the potential social impact of proposed research projects.
Building on Research Translation Strategies
Scientists employ a range of strategies to get their work in the hands of policymakers, and not all of those approaches address prominent barriers to policymakers’ use of evidence: (1) relevance of research dissemination efforts to current policy priorities and (2) lack of interaction between researchers and policymakers. The RPC model draws from lessons learned through multiple translation strategies.
The “Push” Approach. The RPC contrasts with relatively unsuccessful strategies that emphasize “pushing” research into policy, implying that high-quality research will be used if it is clear and accessible (e.g., policy briefs); however, these efforts may achieve limited success if the needs and demands of policymakers are not recognized. While written research synthesis is important for translation, its potential is more apt to be recognized in the context of active communication efforts carried out through in-person connections or collaboration with policymakers.
Rapid Response. Some research synthesis efforts have been adapted to address current policy priorities by first assessing decision-makers’ needs and questions before engaging in a rapid response to synthesize research. The RPC seeks to emulate such a rapid response approach as it is more relevant than “push” approaches. Yet the RPC goes further because research reviews may be insufficient if not coupled with active communication involving joint interpretation of research in the context of interpersonal relationships.
Knowledge Brokerage. This involves developing a mutual understanding of one another’s cultures, assessing current policy priorities, and responding quickly to policymakers’ needs by reviewing relevant research to jointly determine implications of findings. The RPC is most comparable to this strategy, but instead of deploying independent knowledge brokers or agencies, subject-matter experts are mobilized to engage in the policy process.
Research-to-Policy Collaboration Model. Responding to the need to guide, mentor, and direct researchers’ capacity for involvement in policy, researchers’ ability to broker knowledge can be cultivated to prepare them for engaging with policymakers. The RPC is a network-based approach that begins by working with intermediary organizations, which have the potential to broker relationships between policymakers and researchers by leveraging existing trusting relationships and insight on current policy priorities. Working through an intermediary, the RPC recruits researchers who have expertise relevant to current policy priorities. In contrast to deploying independent knowledge brokers or agencies, individuals with direct subject-matter expertise may best contextualize research findings and share personally relevant narratives from their experience. Voluntary contributions also reduce the learning curve for distilling an unfamiliar body of research, which may be more efficient than hiring paid staff alone since the costs of active communication efforts are considerable.