You might not realize it, but policy touches every aspect of our lives. From the food we eat to the roads we drive on: everything is a product of the political process. Not all of our political representatives are health experts, doctors or engineers. Yet, these same politicians are regularly required to make tough decisions on these topics in a matter of minutes without sufficient knowledge. Are their decisions guided by research and logic?
In Empirical Evidence From State Legislators: How, When and Who Uses Research (2020), authors Karen Bogenschneider and Bret N. Bogenschneider investigated the role that empirical research plays in the policy process. Their responses shed light on their decision-making and how scientists can—and must— elevate the use of research in policymaking.
The results showed that decisions on high-profile, polarized issues were not grounded in research, particularly those involving ideological, religious, or moral disagreements. Similarly, research was not involved in decisions regarding political issues driven by passion, such as tragic personal stories and emotional issues. For example, laws named after a victim to invoke sympathy (called eponymous bills or victim bills), were decided based on emotion. One lawmaker stated, “If a bill is named after somebody . . . like Sarah’s Bill, then you know research is screwed.”
Although discouraging, there were many areas of policy where lawmakers relied on empirical research. For issues such as opioid use, concussions, and rural internet availability, legislators reported a larger need for research. Empirical evidence has also become more prevalent with bipartisan and technical issues. Discussions about taxes, land annexation, and infrastructure spending saw more freedom to utilize empirical research as there was less political risk. Fortunately, interviewees estimated that these technical, non-emotional issues represented around 80% of the laws brought to the floor.
There is an inverse relationship between research use and political power. Legislators in the minority party were more likely to use research given their lack of institutional power. They relied on facts in order to convince their opponents of their policy’s credibility and necessity. Those in the majority, on the other hand, appealed to emotional and personal stories.
Finally, credibility and bipartisanship have been affecting politicians’ reliance on research. Researchers found that the utilization of research depended on its reliability and nonpartisan reputation. Reliability of the source as nonpartisan served as a cognitive shortcut for validating the credibility of research since many legislators lacked the time to criticize the quality of the research they were presented with. Legislators voiced concerned that it has become increasingly difficult to find a neutral source of research. In fact, legislators indicated distrust of university-based research due to political bias. Though the distrust was not universal, it illuminates the challenges everyone faces in establishing trust in our digital age of information and misinformation.
Fortunately, research influences a substantial portion of important technical policies. However, there are several subjects which are untouched by research and legislators worry about research sources being trustworthy. Researchers and scientists should strive to build trusting relationships with legislators, forging proper communication and a common understanding with our representatives. It is also important to make research more accessible and understandable. This means avoiding scientific and academic jargon and instead making science more digestible for time-crunched politicians.
The research world is very different from the political world, but it can make a difference in our current circumstances; there can be a common ground. Scientists and researchers must work to bridge the gap between the world of research and the world of politics.