In a previous post, we discussed the history and importance of the Congressional Research Service (CRS) as part of the research-to-policy translational pipeline. A long-time, trusted source of research and analysis, “Congress’s think tank” provides Congress with balanced, neutral information to ensure they have the best available evidence on which to base their policy decisions.
As academics, we can help facilitate the translation of research for policymakers by ensuring that our research is easy to access and understand. Through my experience as a Health and Aging Policy Fellow, I have come to understand how we can better package our results to better reach not just CRS but also policymakers, advocates, and the public.
- Context is Critical
In their manuscripts, academics need to better situate their research study into the larger body of work. As journals and publishers put shorter and shorter word limits on manuscripts, authors are often forced to limit their background sections to a couple of paragraphs. This limited set-up for a research study could make it challenging for someone to know how a single study fits into the broader context. To use the example from Part 1, if a Congressional staffer requests information on prescription drug importation, CRS needs to be able to quickly pull together a cohesive narrative of the literature, and if the CRS analyst cannot be sure that a specific study is within the scope of the staffer’s request, he or she may not include that study in the report. For this reason, CRS analysts often use systematic reviews and meta-analyses. However, we know that these are often done only after research in an area has reached a critical mass and often these are published years after the original research. One would hope that any research translated to policymakers is done in a timely manner, but if CRS or policymakers must rely on systematic reviews and meta-analyses, then we know the research they are consuming is already outdated. Journal editors, publishers, and academics all must agree that adequately placing a single study into the larger, contextual area is imperative in understanding the relevance of the work.
- Don’t Hedge
Academics need to draw clear policy recommendations out of their work. As academics, we are trained to not only recognize the limitations of our work but to couch our findings within those limitations and be extremely cautious about making broad generalizations or suggestions of causality. These are all good practices for ensuring our research is transparent and used appropriately. However, we have perhaps grown so accustomed to hedging our findings that we are sabotaging any utility our research had for policy to begin with. As you remember from Part 1, CRS is by law not allowed to make policy recommendations to Congress. They must present all sides to an issue and then let members of Congress draw their own conclusions as to the best course of action. Therefore, if we are to ensure our research is, at the very least, discussed in the context of a specific policy solution, it is our job to make those recommendations. By making these recommendations, whether in academic manuscripts or elsewhere (more on that below), they at least have the chance to be included in CRS reports and be considered by members of Congress.
- Publish Broadly
Peer-reviewed manuscripts are the gold-standard of academia but that does not mean they are the only game in town. Manuscripts are the currency of academia, but they have little value to a broader audience. CRS and policymakers also rely on press reports, white papers, highly-respected blogs, and other gray literature; yet academics rarely publish in these forms. One reason may be that academics are not trained in how to write these types of publications. Few opportunities exist for academics to learn how to go beyond the journal article, and without this training they are not equipped to produce these types of publications. Another reason, however, may be that academics are not incentivized to produce these types of publications. University Promotion and Tenure Committees are primarily reviewing faculty on the number and quality of grants they obtain, peer-reviewed articles they publish, and teaching and service responsibilities. Given the challenge of securing promotion and tenure based just on these requirements, it is unlikely that academics would or could disseminate their research in these additional ways when they are not being rewarded for it. If we want to get serious about translating research to policy, it may be time for a critical evaluation of how academics are incentivized and incorporate more of this vital dissemination work into the criteria.
Changes in academia do not come quickly or easily. It is only within the past two decades that we have recognized the serious gaps between research and policy and practice. To close these gaps, we have to recognize their causes and adjust our actions. CRS has been translating research for policymakers for over 100 years with no plans to stop. It is time academics do their part to support this essential pipeline.