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Scientists want to influence Congress. A new study reveals how to do it

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When former President Trump signed the Great American Outdoors Act on August 4, 2020 it marked a rare pro-science moment in a presidency filled with anti-scientific rancor.

With 59 senators from both parties co-sponsoring the legislation, the Act sailed through the Senate and House. The result was $900 million for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, as well as money to tackle the massive maintenance backlogs blighting America's national parks.

Polling shows the majority of Americans trust scientists to at least some degree and the Great American Outdoors Act shows how marrying science with politics can make both work for the better. It need not be the last.

What's new — In a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers brought the scientific method itself to the problem of getting science and politics to work in harmony.

Under the auspices of the title Research-to-Policy Collaboration, the researchers conducted a randomized, controlled trial — the gold standard method for a clinical trial of a medication or vaccine — involving the 116th Congress. This was the Congress that sat over the final two years of the Trump presidency.

This intervention, the authors write in the paper, “did not seek to increase the number of new bills introduced by Congress.”

“Instead, the intervention effort aimed to increase the use of scientific evidence while writing new bills.”
The 2017 March for Science was a watershed moment in public demand for Congress to value scientific input. Wild Horizon/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Here's the background — Science is so broad, it is a facet of so much of the work of the federal government — from NASA and defense spending, to healthcare programs and parks departments. Aside from the bitter and loud fights over climate change and a few other pet subjects, most of the influence of science on law-making goes unnoticed. For example, niche bipartisan bills, like the National Quantum Initiative Act of 2018, regularly sail through Congress with ease.

But as the climate-change debate and forever war over the Affordable Care Act show, the role of science in politics is contentious, to same the least. As Richard Proctor, a historian of science at Stanford, said in a Washington Post interview the March for Science in 2017 was pushed forward as a result of a “perception of a massive attack on sacred notions of truth that are sacred to the scientific community.”

President Biden has promised to value science in his administration.MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Echoing this sentiment, about a month after Covid-19 shutdowns began, Pew, a polling and research organization, began to see partisan politics play into how people felt about the different coronavirus mitigation measures. These partisan divisions even played into perceptions about Covid-19 itself, according to an interview between Cary Funk, the director of Pew’s science and society team, and Chemical & Engineering News.

Both the March for Science and coronavirus backlash speak to the problem of incorporating scientific research into legislation. Science is supposed to be above party politics, but if it touches on an issue seen as overly partisan, officials may move away from incorporating vital information into lawmaking.

The team sought to influence the highly divided 116th Congress.Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images News/Getty Images

How they did it — In this study, 226 researchers were assigned to work with 96 randomly selected Congressional offices, both House and Senate offices. For context, 54 percent of the House offices belonged to Democrats, while 45 percent of the Senate offices belonged to Democrats. The researchers offered to help officeholders on child and family policy. Forty-eight Congressional offices were assigned an intervention called the Research-to-Policy Collaboration, while the other 48 were offered publicly available, research-based resources, but received no specialized support.

According to the paper, the Research-to-Policy Collaboration works like this:

  1. The researchers “identify policymakers’ goals, priorities, and need for scientific evidence,” the paper notes.
  2. Researchers who have expertise in the specific areas identified are “coalesced into rapid response networks.”
  3. Researchers get training in how policy-making works, and how to translate research into policy-friendly statements.
  4. Then, “facilitated meetings occur between the office and research teams to further address their needs for scientific evidence,” the paper states.

The offices receiving the intervention were emailed by Research-to-Policy Collaboration team members asking for a meeting. When the meeting was granted, the researchers met with Congressional staffers of various levels of seniority.

During these meetings, staffers were given an assessment of their needs. After the initial meet, some offices met researchers multiple times, although the exact number of meetings varied by office depending on their needs, according to the study.

Overall, the researchers provided:

“Policy briefs and factsheets, congressional briefings, and testimony, as well as requests to review or provide legislative language for bill drafting.”

As noted, the 48 offices in the control group got what the paper described as a “light-touch.” These offices were given access to publicly available, research-based resources — this represents the traditional suite of resources scientists typically offer to Congressional offices, according to the study.

What they found — Of the intervention group, some 92 percent of the offices introduced at least one piece of legislation focusing on children and the family. Of these, a little more than 65 percent included scientific research in those bills. And 23 percent of the intervention group also wrote and introduced bills to Congress containing scientific language.

This marked a sea-change compared to these offices' bill activity in the six months prior to the intervention period, according to the study.

Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduce the Green New Deal.Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Why it matters — The Research-to-Policy Collaboration model strove to be “non-partisan,” the paper notes. Rather, it aimed to get policymakers to incorporate scientific research into their work.

By “approaching the knowledge exchange process with problem-solving and interactive models of engagement,” the paper says, the model might be able to “mitigate political influences in the research translation process.”

What's next — Getting to a place where scientific research is valued across the board could have a profound impact on government policy beyond child and family issues, including climate change, where Congress and President Biden could play major roles pushing a new, science-backed legislative agenda forward.

As the 117th Congress now in session tackles the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change, infrastructure problems, and a host of other issues, the need for scientific input is more crucial than ever. For the researchers' part, the Research-to-Policy Collaboration model could be fine-tuned, according to the paper's authors. One tweak could be less of a focus on the tactical deployment of research, and more of a focus on “conceptual use” of the work, which “may influence a broad array of decisions in a more indirect manner,” according to the paper.

Abstract: Core to the goal of scientific exploration is the opportunity to guide future decision-making. Yet, elected officials often miss opportunities to use science in their policymaking. This work reports on an experiment with the US Congress—evaluating the effects of a randomized, dual-population (i.e., researchers and congressional offices) outreach model for supporting legislative use of research evidence regarding child and family policy issues. In this experiment, we found that congressional offices randomized to the intervention reported greater value of research for understanding issues than the control group following implementation. More research use was also observed in legislation introduced by the intervention group. Further, we found that researchers randomized to the intervention advanced their own policy knowledge and engagement as well as reported benefits for their research following implementation.
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