Helping Congress get the most from research

Aaron Wagner
February 16, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In a new study, Penn State researchers demonstrated that facilitating researcher-policymaker interactions in rapid response processes can influence both how legislators think about policy issues and how they draft legislation.

Penn State professors Max Crowley, associate professor of human development and family studies, and public policy, and Taylor Scott, assistant research professor in the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center, co-direct the Research-to-Policy Collaboration, which connects members of Congress with researchers who synthesize evidence about family and child policy in a timely and digestible manner.

The Research-to-Policy Collaboration has the potential to improve the quality of information available to Congress, increase the impact of relevant research, and create more common ground among American lawmakers at a polarized point in our history, said the researchers.

“We believe that lawmakers can make better use of research throughout the planning, decision making, allocation of resources, and implementation of policies,” said Crowley. “The goal of our work is to build a bridge between the research community and policy community. This study examined whether Congress would put research to better use if we facilitated researchers’ rapid responses to their specific questions.”

Researcher collaborations, not lobbying

The research team wants to improve how lawmakers use scientific evidence, but the researchers do not lobby Congress. In lobbying, people try to influence how lawmakers act on an issue. The Research-to-Policy Collaboration provides evidence — not opinions — on specific legislation or federal programs.

“Issues relating to children are important to everyone, no matter where they fall on the political spectrum,” Scott said. “There are a lot of opportunities for non-partisan or bipartisan conversations about children and family issues, which is not always the case for a lot of other important topics.”

The researchers hope to change the culture of how Congress uses research. Like many other people, lawmakers at times cherry-pick statistics or cite single research studies that reinforce their entrenched positions on issues, said the researchers. People across the political spectrum are prone to using research in this tactical manner when addressing polarizing topics like climate change, healthcare or taxes.

In contrast, researchers in the Research-to-Policy Collaboration seek to increase the use of research evidence when policies are conceptualized or framed. For example, when drafting new laws, lawmakers could consider funding programs or policies that have been shown to be effective by research, said the researchers. This model encourages the use of research evidence as a tool for informed decision making and does not support tactical uses of research for bolstering a political position.

The difference between lobbying and collaboration is not lost on those who participated in the study, explained the researchers. A counsel to a senator who worked with the researchers said, “It was not lobbyists asking us for something but really us asking what we needed and them providing it back, so it was a really helpful relationship.”

Improving how research is used in lawmaking

This study was the Research-to-Policy Collaboration model’s first experiment involving Congress, and the results were clear, the researchers reported. Participating legislative offices sponsored more than 20% more bills containing research language compared to legislative offices in the control group of the study.

Furthermore, participating members of Congress did not become more likely to single out select statistics or cite individual research studies to defend an entrenched position, according to the study. The members also showed a modest increase in their belief that research evidence is valuable for understanding how to think about problems when developing legislation.

Facilitating conversations through research evidence

Crowley and Scott are optimistic both because of the potential in the Research-to-Policy Collaboration model and because they believe that members of Congress want to use the best available information to make the most informed decisions possible.

“In my experience, people want to use science, no matter their party affiliation,” Crowley stated. “The use of science is not partisan, per se.”

Crowley and Scott recognize that this approach will not solve partisan issues in lawmaking bodies, they said, but they hope that promoting the use of scientific evidence can establish a common language for debate.

“Recently, our society has struggled to find common ground about what is fact and what is truth,” said Scott. “If we can enable people of different parties to understand scientific evidence, then we can start the process of finding common ground.

“In our work, we have seen lawmakers take scientific evidence that we provided across the aisle to their colleagues,” Scott continued. “We also have seen those recipients embrace the evidence, and this has served as the starting point for meaningful conversation.”

The article, “Lawmaker’s use of scientific evidence can be improved,” will be published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Other authors include Lawrie Green, Azaliah Israel, Lauren Supplee, Elizabeth Jordan, Kathryn Oliver, Shannon Guillot-Wright, Brittany Gay, Rachel Storace, Naomi Torres-Mackie, Yolanda Murphy, Sandra Donnay, Jenna Reardanz, Rebecca Smith, Kristina McGuire, Elizabeth Baker, Ana Antonopoulos, Mary McCauley and Cagla Giray.

This research was funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the William T. Grant Foundation.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated March 01, 2021