Racial inequities are enduring and pervasive problems in the U.S. that have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and contribute to poor public health outcomes.
For instance, studies have found that working from home is only possible for 1 in 5 Black people (U.S. Dept of Labor Statistics) and the COVID-19 death rate of Black people is 2.5 times higher than that of white people in the U.S. (COVID Tracking Project). Research findings such as these are critical for informing policy, but how do researchers translate these findings so policymakers can take action? Especially during the pandemic, digital messages are a primary way for researchers and policymakers to connect.
In a new study published in the American Journal of Public Health, Penn State researchers investigated strategies for increasing the reach of racial equity research to state and federal policymakers via such digital communication. These strategies involved manipulating the framing of email subject lines to test if one frame resulted in more email opens than another, which would indicate that the research is reaching more policymakers.
Through the course of this project, over 5,600 legislators across the country interacted with high-quality research summaries of important racial disparities. The research included a series of four randomized controlled trials. Researchers found that using words in email subject lines that evoke strong emotions or are threatening, such as “social disparities,” “oppression” and “threats,” resulted in significantly more email opens by policymakers than email subject lines that used neutral words.
Lead author Elizabeth Long, assistant research professor and director of research and evaluation for the Research-to-Policy Collaboration (RPC), suggests that this work lays the foundation for future research on science-policy communication, which can facilitate evidence-based policymaking and ultimately improve public health.
“Although many researchers have a desire to create social change, such as helping to dismantle racism through policy, there is a surprising lack of empirical research investigating best practices for improving the reach of research to policymakers. Much more work is needed, but this study begins to shed some light on strategies for doing so,” said Long.
While there is much more work to be done, there are some immediate lessons learned for the research community, according to Max Crowley, director of the Evidence-to-Impact Collaborative and study co-author.
“This study emphasizes that not only will policymakers engage with scientific information through this medium, but that the words we use to describe our science matter greatly. It’s the difference between whether your research informs policy on the ground or your email goes unread,” said Crowley.
Support for this work was provided by the William T. Grant Foundation, the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the National Science Foundation, the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences at Penn State, and Penn State’s Social Science Research Institute. Other authors on the study include Jessica Pugel, research associate with the RPC, and Taylor Scott, co-director of the RPC and director of research translation with the Evidence-to-Impact Collaborative.