The Society for the
Study of Social Issues


   The Not-So-Clear-Cut Road from Science to Policy: A Few Lessons Learned

   By Angel W. Colón-Rivera, Ph.D, James Marshall Scholar

Translating science into sound public policy is at the core of SPSSI’s mission. At face value, this is a logical cause. If public policy is designed to regulate public behavior, then social scientists who study behavior should be best equipped to inform policymaking. This is a central tenant of my belief system. It’s the reason I got into policy work and affiliated with SPSSI in the first place. Yet, during my tenure as the James Marshall Scholar, I’ve found that defining sound public policy and finding the proper empirical research to inform it can be quite a challenge. So, I will take this opportunity to jot down a few brief lessons out of the many I have learned.

Lesson 1: Not all research is created equally. Just about every debatable piece of legislation is backed by its own brand of partisan research. What research gets used in forming public policy ultimately depends on the Congress Member. Many Members of Congress and their staff rely on the work of the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the non-partisan research branch of the Library of Congress that works exclusively for Congress. CRS expertise encompasses every area of the policy spectrum, and the information they provide is based on academic, scientific, and governmental research. Sometimes, Members and staff do their own brand of desk research by seeking out credible experts and sources to craft their own conclusions based on their legislative agendas and the needs of the people they represent. Others choose not to rely on CRS or other credible sources and instead create policies that reflect their own values and those of their constituencies. Many times these Members rely on information provided by interest groups who either conduct their own biased research or rely on research performed by similar-minded organizations without a great deal of cross-referencing sources or fact-checking. Hence, every topic to be discussed can be backed by its own set of data—empirically-sound or otherwise.

Lesson 2: Quantitative vs. qualitative. We are a numbers-driven society, yet everyone loves a good story. I cannot stress enough how important statistical data is in shaping public policy and public opinion. However, a good story is just as important. As a qualitative researcher I’m interested in people’s histories as they relate to the larger narrative of the topic I’m researching. As it turns out, so are most politicians. The difference of course is that as a social scientist I look for the common themes in people’s stories to puzzle out a solution to the problem at hand. Most politicians just look for that one emblematic story that both reflects the cause they intend to champion and will move people to action, even if that story stands alone. As a social scientist working in the political arena, it’s my job to make sure that the single story championed reflects the needs of many.

Lesson 3: Don’t bring your journal ‘round here. Bring your abstract. A June 6th article by the Washington Times entitled “Congressional staffers, public shortchanged by high turnover, low pay” underscored the sad reality that most congressional staffers are young, overworked, and underpaid. As one of those staffers on a much more livable SPSSI-sponsored fellowship salary, I can attest that most of us won’t be able to take the time to read your journal article because we simply don’t have the time to do it. We will, however, read your short executive summary. Many students and academicians can’t fathom the thought of having to summarize years of research into a single page. We simply don’t have the training, our topics are too complex, and one page is not enough space to explain even the core hypothesis. These are all myths. If you’ve ever presented at a conference or published a paper, odds are that you have had to write an abstract because the selection committee at hand has to read dozens, if not hundreds, of these summaries in order to select the best ones. The life of a Hill staffer can be very similar. Only, instead of evaluating one-page summaries on one topic, they’re reading summaries on ten very different and disparate topics. To give you my personal example, on a typical day I meet with several people pitching their ideas on issues that range from human trafficking to reform of United States Postal Services. What might make your summary stand out from others is how clearly and concisely you deliver your narrative. For now, be aware that a summary will likely be read, and a 25-page journal article may not.

Lesson 4: SPSSI has a greater role to play in shaping the future of public policy. If you’re a SPSSI member reading this article, my personal bet is that you care more about what’s happening in the world than most people around you, and you believe that social science holds some of the clues to solving some of its problems. For 76 years, SPSSI has worked to inform public policy on the latest scientific developments that its membership produces. Now, more than ever, the ideological gap among policymakers has reached a rift of alarming proportions. The intense level of rhetoric in today’s political discourse is driving a wedge between those who trust in the benefits of science as a way forward and those who do not. Social issues are once again gaining prominence in the political discourse. It’s our job to make sure that its content remains informed by the sound science we produce.

—Angel W. Colón-Rivera

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Research that produces nothing but books will not suffice.
                                                                                                                    - Kurt Lewin