New funding to test impact of research communication strategies on policymakers

Penn State’s Research-to-Policy Collaboration (RPC) is responding to legislators’ needs for social and behavioral research related to the coronavirus pandemic, with support from the William T. Grant Foundation.

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.

The award builds upon a previous project, which began when the RPC was awarded funding through Penn State’s Coronavirus Research Seed Fund (CRSF). The project aims to leverage scientific findings that indicate policymakers’ application of research-based evidence is enhanced by trusting interpersonal relationships between researchers and policymakers.

“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 youth and their families.”

The RPC is engaging child and family scholars who can respond to congressional needs with timely and scientific technical support through the establishment of the Rapid Response Network, which currently includes researchers who have diverse areas of expertise that are cataloged so that they may be identified and mobilized quickly to respond to congressional requests for research evidence.

With the help of the CRSF funding, RPC was able to enroll an additional 127 researchers in the Network to engage them in translating research related to social inequities in the COVID-19 pandemic. “By getting critical scientific information regarding a current crisis into the hands of individuals who can act on it, science-based policies may have the potential to mitigate inequalities precipitated by COVID-19 and improve the lives of youth and families affected by the crisis,” Scott said.

The RPC also met with legislatures to assess their needs and facilitate researcher engagement, and hosted virtual panels with lawmaker audiences. This led the RPC to adapt to more virtual formats for working with researchers and policy makers, and the development of more than 20 one- to two-page electronic fact sheets disseminated to policymakers and staff spanning topics from violence to health disparities.

“With the nation in crisis, we needed to rethink how we could 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 up to 800 legislative contacts.”

With the additional funding from the William T. Grant foundation, the RPC will be able to enhance access to and perceived relevance of timely research evidence during times of crisis when information volume is high.

The RPC plans to both enhance and experimentally test the impact of various dissemination approaches by evaluating strategies for communicating research related to social inequities, potential impact of enhanced dissemination on policy activities, and also generate experimental evidence about effective messaging of scientific evidence.

In the study, one group of policy makers will receive enhanced dissemination, including fact sheets with interactions from researchers regarding inequities that youth and children will face as a consequence of the pandemic. Meanwhile, a second group will receive the fact sheets only, and a third group will not receive any research communications. “This unique design will allow us to evaluate the value of enhanced dissemination as a complement to facilitating interactions with researchers. We will compare policymakers’ use of research evidence related to COVID-19 and families across these groups,” said Scott.

Their work will be made replicable, so that it can be adapted to different topic areas and used to respond to other times of crisis. “Most researchers don’t have training to disseminate research information. They want to talk to researchers, and the RCP acts as the broker, the connector, to the researchers and the information they need,” Scott said.

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.