Increasing the Reach of Science Using Tailored and Targeted Messages

This blog post is based on the Evidence & Policy article, ‘Cutting through the noise during crisis by enhancing the relevance of research to policymakers’.*

Taylor Scott and Jessica Pugel

We know that policymakers are most likely to use research evidence when the evidence fits what they need at that time, and that email is a cost-effective way of sharing such research. But researchers aren’t the only ones in legislators’ inboxes – constituents and special interest groups also seek out legislators’ attention and their inboxes. Thus, we need to understand how to better reach legislators with science so that we can cut through the noise and provide trustworthy research evidence at the right time. This is especially true during moments of crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, when our study occurred, ‘Cutting through the noise during crisis by enhancing the relevance of research to policymakers’.

Although the literature theorises that policymakers use research they deem as timely and personally relevant, there has been a lack of practical strategies for improving perceived relevance. Through four experimental trials with US legislators across four issue areas (COVID-19, violence, exploitation and policing), we found support for one such strategy: including the legislators’ name or state/district name in the subject line. In three of the four trials, tailored emails were engaged with more often.

We also wanted to know if there are characteristics about legislators that might help dissemination teams identify who would find the information relevant regardless tailoring the message—in other words, how can we choose a target audience? Subsequent analyses (not experimental) considered which legislators found the subject matter relevant by examining engagement rates based on (a) committee membership, (b) how severe the issue was in their state, and (c) how often the legislator publicly mentioned the issue on social media and other statements. Out of those three, committee membership was the strongest predictor of engaging with emails. For example, legislators who sit on judiciary committees were more likely to engage with messages about policing than legislators who do not sit on judiciary committees. This is consistent with practice wisdom that legislators are most effective allies for policy issues corresponding to their committee assignments.

To our surprise, the prevalence of the issue within the state (e.g. how many people are trafficked) was a fairly weak or nonsignificant predictor of whether a legislator engaged with the email. Furthermore, how vocal a legislator was in public mentions about the issue was also a very inconsistent predictor. For instance, legislators who mentioned policing more times were more likely to engage with the email about policing; however, legislators who mentioned COVID-19 more times were less likely to engage with an email about COVID-19. This inconsistency was surprising and suggests we need to further study the information sphere. What are the competing information sources and is this influenced by the availability of trustworthy information, or the political nature of the topic? At the times of these trials, policing was very politicised, whereas the pandemic was not (yet). Public mentions of less politicised topics like violence and exploitation were not strong predictors. It could be that legislators who care about these less politicised issues already have trusted sources, though more research is needed to understand what information policymakers use in which circumstances.

Based on these findings, we suggest that science communicators start with emailing legislators assigned to committees that have jurisdiction of the issue, and tailor the message text to the legislator and their district. But, dissemination is not a stand-alone strategy. These enhanced dissemination messages and targeting strategies should serve primarily as a foot in the door for initiating connections with legislators. Ultimately, relationships are the best way to increase the use of research in policymaking and help science achieve its intended social impact.

– Taylor Scott is Assistant Research Professor at the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center and Director of Research Translation, Evidence-to-Impact Collaborative at Pennsylvania State University. Dr Scott consults on various strategies for bridging research and policy and leads scholarly research that sheds light on the best practices for research translation, science communication and facilitating productive interactions between researchers and policymakers.

– Jessica Pugel is a Research Associate at the Evidence-to-Impact Collaborative (EIC) at Penn State University. Jessica’s role includes (1) supporting analytic capacity, (2) enhancing researcher engagement and (3) maintaining partnerships with related organisations.

*This post first appeared on the evidencepolicyblog