Over the past 10 years, public health researchers have produced an enormous amount of policy-relevant research evidence about childhood obesity. But how much of this evidence is actually reaching state decision-makers responsible for crafting policies to address childhood obesity, and when it does reach them, how are they putting it to use? These were the questions our research team set out to answer in the state of Minnesota.
Our study found that 41 percent of formal legislative materials, such as testimonies, bills and legislative reports, cited some kind of research evidence. Mostly, this evidence was used to describe the prevalence or consequences of obesity and the impacts of policies. About half of the evidence cited was not attributed to a particular source, like a peer-reviewed journal or a state or national report.
In contrast, the study found that the vast majority — 92 percent of all materials — cited non-research-based information. This information included constituents’ opinions, expert beliefs, political principles, and anecdotes or stories.
For the study, we identified the range of obesity-related bills the Minnesota Legislature had considered over a five-year period, from 2007 to 2011. Then, we scoured the archives in the legislative library to identify every piece of written material (such as reports, news articles, and letters) and oral testimony presented at hearings for these bills. We created a sample of these materials by randomly selecting half of the testimony and all of the documents for review. Finally, we subjected each of these materials to a rigorous content analysis — by analyzing each piece of information for whether they cited research evidence, what type of evidence was cited, and what types of non-research-based information was cited, like stories, political principles, and expert beliefs. Overall, we examined a final sample size of 109 different materials over the five-year period.
To our surprise, in spite of the wealth of known information about racial, ethnic, regional, and socioeconomic-related disparities in obesity prevalence, we did not see any of this evidence cited in the materials.
Our study concludes that policymakers in Minnesota appear to believe that research evidence can be an important justification for policy action. However, as we know, policymakers must strike a balance between policy actions suggested by research evidence and other influences in the political process, like what their constituents will support.
We also acknowledge that this study does not account for less formal venues in which research evidence might be discussed among policymakers and advocates, lobbyists, health administrators, and researchers. In a subsequent study interviewing these various stakeholders, we conclude that research is indeed a part of these conversations, but there are many opportunities for improvement.
Chief among our recommendations is that we can improve the translation of research into the policy setting by improving the relationships between researchers and decision-makers who, by virtue of their positions, are poised to use the findings. When researchers and policymakers can connect and build trust with each other, we anticipate that more than 41 percent of future legislative discussions about childhood obesity will be based on well-grounded research.
The study can be found in the current issue of the American Journal of Public Health.
This guest post was prepared by Sarah Gollust, P.D., Assistant Professor of Health Policy and Management at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. The co-authors on the study included Susie Nanney, Sara Benning, and Hanna Kite, of the University of Minnesota; Rachel Callanan of the American Heart Association Midwest Affiliate; and Susan Weisman of the Public Health Law Center.
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