Although most research for behavioral health policy is accomplished in higher education, almost three-quarters of state legislators do not use universities as a primary source of information, according to a new study.
The study, which used 475 state legislators in a cross-sectional survey, was led by Dornsife School of Public Health Assistant Professor Jonathan Purtle. Of the 475 state legislators, only 27 percent sought research from universities as their primary source of information.
Instead, advocacy organizations, legislative staff and state agencies were the most frequently utilized sources. Purtle found 53 percent of legislators used advocacy organizations as a source of behavioral health research, while legislative staff was a source for 51 percent, and state agencies for 48 percent.
Purtle spoke about the disconnect between policymakers and university researchers in a DrexelNow article, saying, “Historically, university researchers have mainly asked research questions that are of interest to themselves and other university researchers. These are often different than the questions that are of interest to policymakers.”
Because of the disconnect shown in his study, Purtle aims to further find out “how policymakers get their public health information, what they think of it, and how it affects their actions. The hope is to demystify how policies get made — and show researchers what channels are most effective in influencing them,” the DrexelNow article explains.
The study found that political affiliation was correlated with the sources legislators used.Published in Psychiatric Services, Purtle’s “sought to characterize primary sources of behavioral health research and dissemination preferences of state legislators and assess differences by political party.” For example, the study showed that 34 percent of Democrats utilized university research as a primary source versus only 19 percent of Republicans. Of the most common source, advocacy organizations, 65 percent of Democrats cited them compared to 40 percent of Republicans.
Both Democrats and Republicans, however, rated “budget impact” and “cost-effectiveness” as the factors of research most important to them. This may help to explain why many policymakers opted to use sources other than university research.
Understanding how lawmakers choose their sources will help universities conduct research that will be utilized more. “We’re seeing that researchers have a variety of channels — such as advocacy organizations and state agencies — that they can reach legislators through. We must branch out from the traditional avenues we use for exposure and communicate the message of our research in an appealing way,” Purtle said to DrexelNow.
“To reach legislators and satisfy their information preferences, behavioral health researchers should target diverse audiences, partner with intermediary organizations, and craft messages that include economic evaluation data,” Purtle concluded from his research.
The full study, “Legislators’ Sources of Behavioral Health Research and Preferences for Dissemination: Variations by Political Party,” is available at Psychiatry Online.