Connecting Research To Policy: Community Collaboration, Policy-Relevant Findings, And Insights Shared Early And Often

By Brian Quinn in Health Affairs. 

Creating a Culture of Health—one in which health is a shared value and every person has the opportunity to be as healthy as possible—requires leadership, innovation, and collaboration across every field, profession, and sector, far beyond health and health care. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) has invested approximately $100 million in leadership and research programs to help people to collaborate to expand the impact of their work, to find new energy in their professional lives by reaching outside of their “silos,” and to create change in their communities. Our vision is that a growing cadre of leaders will use their work to advance health equity. (To learn more, please visit this web page.)

Because engaged research—conducted in partnership with the community and applied in real time—is core to several of these programs, we asked four program leaders to share insights on connecting research to action. Their thoughts are summarized below.

In the best cases, research on health and social issues is used to create strong and lasting policies that lead to measurable improvements in health and well-being. But, too often, researchers and policy makers can face conflicting incentives that limit this potential for change. For example, policy makers have a strong incentive to meet the demands of their constituents and supporters, which may run counter to research findings. And researchers, driven by the powerful incentive of career advancement, sometimes use academic research metrics, which can be far different than metrics to measure actual change in health, well-being, and other factors.

"I have been frustrated by the impact (or lack thereof) [that] my peer-reviewed publications have had on policy,” says Rachel Kimbro, professor of sociology at Rice University and a fellow in Interdisciplinary Research Leaders, a national leadership development program for teams of researchers and community members collaborating to build health equity. “Two barriers—[the standard practice of] approaching research from one methodological perspective only and challenges translating my work to policy makers—have led to what you might call scholarly frustration."

Engaged research can accelerate the shift needed to build a Culture of Health, especially if it follows several core principles: It’s done in collaboration with the community, the results are relevant to policy makers, researchers share results early and often to maintain a two-way conversation with people who will be interested in the final findings, and the research is easy to apply to specific situations. Each of these principles is discussed in more detail below.

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