Panel Paper: Examining the Barriers to Use of Research Evidence in State Policymaking for Childhood Obesity Prevention in Minnesota

Saturday, November 9, 2013 : 4:30 PM
3015 Madison (Washington Marriott)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Sarah Gollust1, Elizabeth Walker1, Hanna Kite1, Susan Weisman2, Rachel Callanan3 and Marilyn S. Nanney1, (1)University of Minnesota, (2)Public Health Law Center, (3)American Heart Association
Research Objective:  Experts suggest that the pace of research evidence translation into policymaking for obesity prevention is slow relative to the magnitude of the problem. In order to understand how research evidence might be more effectively translated into the policy domain of obesity, it is important to understand how scientific evidence has been used to influence the policy process to date and the barriers key stakeholders face in using evidence in decision-making. 

Methods:  Our mixed-methods study incorporates a community-based participatory approach, employing a team of researchers, advocates, policy analysts, state agency staff and sitting legislators. This approach, following best practices in the field of knowledge transfer, maximizes the likelihood of use of the findings by the end-users: decision-makers responsible for health improvement in Minnesota. In the first stage of this research, we selected 13 obesity-related bills introduced from 2007 to 2011 that varied in their issue area (e.g., built environment, school nutrition) and outcome (e.g., passed, failed).  Using state archives, we identified and collected all House and Senate committee meeting materials (e.g., fact sheets, letters) and floor testimony related to each bill. We developed a coding instrument to systematically analyze the content of a sample of 109 documents for their use of evidence and other non-research based information (e.g., political principles, comparisons to other states). In the second stage of the research, we conducted 51 interviews with advocates/lobbyists (n=19), state agency staff (n=16), legislators (n=7), and legislative staff (n=9) about the use of evidence in their work.   

Results: Research evidence was mentioned in 41% of all legislative documents, more (55%) in 2011 and the least in 2008 (38%). Evidence was used most often to describe the consequences of obesity, its prevalence, or policy impact. In contrast to the relatively infrequent presentation of research evidence, 92% of documents presented non-research-based persuasive information, with presentation of expert beliefs (48%), constituent opinion (34%), financial impact (37%), appeals to political principles (33%) or anecdotes/stories (24%) particularly common. The qualitative interviews illuminated the barriers stakeholders face in using research evidence in decisions about obesity, challenges exacerbated by partisan divides over the role of government in obesity control.  The most common challenges experienced among all stakeholders were experiencing ‘information overload’, lacking personal relationships across sectors, mismatch between data needs and available research, incompatible time horizons in the research and policy worlds, and lack of awareness of how to access local researchers.   

Conclusion: Despite an abundance of available policy-relevant research evidence on obesity, less than half of documents or oral testimony cited any such evidence in discussions around obesity-related bills under consideration in Minnesota in the previous five years.  Qualitative findings revealed the need to develop community-supported tools for communicating evidence to state lawmakers and agency staff. While the focus of this project is obesity policy, the findings may offer lessons for how policymakers in other domains might incorporate the results of policy analyses into their work and how researchers might maximize the policy impact of their research.