From Academia to Advocacy and Back: The Importance of Translating Research into Policy

, food systems & health analyst | May 6, 2016, 3:09 pm EDT
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Sadly, this will be my last post as an analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).  I came to UCS in Washington, DC immediately after obtaining my PhD in 2014. Two years later, I’m coming full circle, returning to the world of academia—with a new understanding and appreciation for how my research can have an impact in the policy world.

I had spent years daydreaming about coming to a big city, using research to influence policy, and most of all–continuing to work in the field of public health.  Suddenly, I wasn’t daydreaming anymore. I had accepted a job at an advocacy organization. I was excited, nervous, and—most of all, scared. In academia, the term “advocacy” can be met with hesitation. On the one side, being an advocate is the opposite of being objective, and for researchers being objective is everything. It means you are credible, unbiased, and respected by your peers.  On the other side, there are some that think policy is grounded in everything but evidence. It is influenced by unsubstantiated claims and emotions—a purely subjective process. After two years, I’ve come to recognize that both sides can learn from each other.

Visiting the White House in September 2015.

Visiting the White House in September 2015.

In 2014, I was terrified that by leaving academia, I would no longer be respected by the “ivory tower”.  The thought of losing the esteem of those who helped build the foundation of my knowledge base concerned me.  For all the time I spent worrying about whether I would be considered a credible researcher, I forgot to consider how my advocacy experience could make me a more competent and sought faculty candidate.  The skills and perspectives I gained while working at UCS—mixing the appropriate dose of passion and science—cannot be taught or learned in a classroom.

From academia to advocacy: how researchers can speak with policymakers

Some of the most energizing opportunities I’ve had at UCS have been communicating directly with policymakers: Testifying at public hearings, participating in roundtables with former White House staff, and speaking with legislators on Capitol Hill.   UCS’s expert Communications and Outreach teams prepared me for each of these activities. First and foremost, I’ve learned the importance of knowing my audience. When speaking with legislators, it is paramount to consider what their constituents care about, what issues they are personally interested in, and how they have voted in the past. I learned that to be most effective, advocates must state directly what the problem is, what the possible solutions are, and walk through the financial and political costs and benefits of taking on an issue. It’s important to be clear and concise and to connect with them through personal stories.

For some academics, telling a personal story can feel far from objective. However, I learned that they can be extremely effective–especially when conveying lots of facts and figures. Last year, I remember sitting in a room with a Congressional staffer talking about my report Lessons from the Lunchroom. I was discussing the impact of school lunch on children’s diets when I noticed her start to fidget…checking her watch, glancing at her phone, etc. I attempted to regain her attention by telling a story about how my 5-year-old nephew likes to mimic my eating behaviors when he visits us. I was trying to really hone in on the message that children need to be introduced at an early age to healthy habits–and schools are a great place to accomplish this. And boom–I had her attention again–so much that she started talking about her own children’s eating habits.

The major lessons I’ve learned about effectively engaging policymakers are: 1) do your research on them, 2) have a clear message, and 3) have a story that drives home your point on a personal level.

A changing attitude in academia?

For other academics considering advocacy, I am hopeful they can learn from my experience, and making that transition from academia to advocacy won’t seem as scary as it did for me. There are many in the academic community that recognize the importance of young researchers gaining advocacy and policy experience. Dr. Mary Story, a Professor at Duke University and the Director of the Healthy Eating Research program at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, recently wrote me, “There need to be more opportunities for young research investigators to get hands-on experience and to gain an insider’s view of the advocacy and political process. This type of real-world experience about effectively translating and communicating research into actionable evidence-based practices and policies is critical for improving health in the U.S.”  Lucky for me, Dr. Story is not the only academic who thinks this way.

After today, I will leave this incredible organization to be an Assistant Professor in the Department of Youth, Family, and Community Sciences at North Carolina State University. I am fortunate that the faculty there respects and values the skills I have gained as an advocate. As Dr. Carolyn Dunn, my soon-to-be department chair has put it, “The importance of advocating for policy change simply cannot be overstated. We need those entering the field of food and health to be part of the policy conversation. Translating what we know about how to help people be healthy into policy is imperative to making lasting change in the health of the nation.

My ultimate goal is to change the health of the nation for the better. I have spent the past few years working alongside my UCS colleagues to start a national conversation about how to create a better food system in hopes of improving the health and well-being of all Americans. There are many ways to achieve that better system, including through academic research and outreach, and with state-level action. Currently in North Carolina, 30% of adults are obese, 11% have diabetes, and 23% are physically inactive; clearly I have a lot of work to do! So I bid you – and the federal policy arena – goodbye for now, as I take this dream back on the road to the state level.


Author’s note: I won’t be saying goodbye to UCS entirely…I have already signed up for UCS’s Science Network and hope to guest blog from time to time.

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