Building bridges: How to share research about children and youth with policymakers

Publication Date:

October 19, 2016

Legislators are not simply passive consumers of research. They gather and use research in conjunction with their own values and experiences. They also use it to understand problems they encounter in their capacity as lawmakers, and to substantiate their ideas and positions.1 The extent to which they use research varies widely, based on their organizational culture,2 as well as their ability to acquire research that is relevant and rigorous, adapt it to local conditions, and apply it to current problems.3

Generally, the literature identifies five ways that policymakers use research:

  1. Instrumental use – Research helps a policymaker learn about a particular problem, and provides motivation to address it. Alternatively, research helps a policymaker learn about a particular program that may address a relevant issue.
  2. Conceptual use – Research either generally informs the policymaker on a topic or changes his or her attitudes toward it.
  3. Strategic or tactical use – Research is used to further the policymaker’s political goals.4 For instance, a study of school board debates found that when a board was told “the research says X,” this was perceived as a nearly irrefutable source of credibility; the validity of the claim was almost never questioned, much less the source or the methodology of the research.5
  4. Process use – Participation in research changes the way that policymakers think and act. For instance, a grant may require a local school board to use implementation studies to evaluate new programs. Doing this may change how the board thinks about the process of education.
  5. Imposed use – Policymakers use research to fulfill a requirement,6 such as one written into a contract or piece of legislation. For instance, a state may receive a grant to implement a pilot program, with the caveat that they evaluate it through a rigorously designed evaluation.

Researchers continue to study these concepts, further examining whether and how research is used by policymakers to change and shape their ideas.7

Although it is rarely a linear process, policies go through stages of development before they are finalized, and research is used in different ways at each stage. First, legislators define a problem that needs a solution, often in a way that suggests a particular type of policy. At this stage, policymakers will combine research on the extent and cause of the problem, combined with their own ideas and values, which may themselves be informed by research. In other words, conceptual usage of research dominates. After the problem has been defined and a general policy direction has been chosen, the specific details of a plan are hammered out. This is when instrumental use of research is most common, but, since time is short, predesigned programs may take precedence. In the next stage, legislators push for the policy to be enacted, primarily using research in a tactical way: to persuade allies and discredit detractors.8 Legislators are often only peripherally involved in the final stage, implementation.