As suicide researchers, we develop hypotheses, collect and analyze data, and draw conclusions to contribute to efforts to save lives and create lives worth living. Beyond these academic pursuits, however, we must also use our skills and expertise to influence community and social change. One step toward creating this change is using data and research to inform policy. To do this, however, we must also understand how research is used in policy and what the policymaking process looks like.
Understanding the Use of Research in Policy
Research is typically just one of many sources of information policymakers use in drafting and implementing legislation. As such, it is important for researchers to think about who is using our research and how. While we may see our work as straightforward, understanding how policymakers define, acquire, interpret, and use research is imperative.
- Defining research: Terms such as “evidence-based,” “research-informed,” and “best practices” are often used interchangeably. It is important to understand what policymakers think research and evidence mean. Ensuring a shared language between researchers and policymakers can help close the research-policy gap.
- Acquiring research: Researchers must focus on how policymakers acquire our work and consider it from the perspective of the end user. Rather than simply pushing information out, consider how and from where policymakers pull information. This includes going beyond the traditional academic outlets to inform policy through podcasts, blogs, print news interviews, op-eds, and television segments.
- Interpreting research: Research does not speak for itself. Therefore, researchers must always interpret the meaning of their work, discuss its implications, and provide straightforward recommendations to inform policy. This involves creating simple, accessible one- or two-page documents that summarize the research, describe its implications for policymakers’ constituents, and offer solutions to identified issues.
- Using research: There are four major ways in which research can be used to inform policy. Instrumental use is when research is used to inform specific policy decisions. Conceptual use is when research helps to shape the way issues are perceived or discussed. Imposed use is when the use of research is mandated (such as in school-based policies or grant awarding). Finally, tactical use is when research is used to support decisions that have already been made.
The Policymaking Process
Once researchers understand who is using our research and how it is being defined, acquired, interpreted, and used, it is important to understand where research can be applied in the legislative process. Most researchers tend to think of policy work at the policy formulation step: Using research to draft legislation. Rather, research is necessary at all six phases of the legislative process and can be used in multiple ways. This includes agenda setting, policy formulation, debate, adoption, implementation, and evaluation. Figure 1 below illustrates this process.
Each of these six phases is essential to the legislative process, and each requires research. This includes initiating contact with policy-focused organizations and legislators, formulating policies, participating in committee hearings to influence amendments and debates, dissemination and implementation research, and the evaluation of existing policies. This also necessitates being a resource to policymakers and their staff for the long haul, particularly when getting involved from the agenda setting phase.
An Example of Policy Change
As an example of this work in the United States, in the spring of 2018, I was fortunate enough to partner with then-State Representative Runestad and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention to establish a State Suicide Prevention Commission in Michigan—the first of its kind in the state. Agenda setting began as Runestad’s legislative director reached out to me and we gathered input from community and non-profit stakeholders. I then researched best practices and examples from other states in the U.S. to begin the policy formulation phase. After months of back-and-forth, House Bill 5682 was introduced in the Michigan House of Representatives. Unfortunately, the bill did not come up for debate and was stalled in the Health Policy Committee for the remainder of the legislative session.
Soon thereafter, Runestad was elected to serve in the Senate and reintroduced a revised version of the bill in that chamber—Senate Bill 228. At that point, I testified in the Senate Health Policy and Human Services Committee and the bill was passed by the State Senate in the spring of 2019. That summer, I testified in the House Health Policy and House Ways and Means Committees. Two substitute versions were proposed and adopted in the House and the bill was sent to be reconciled by the Senate. Senate Bill 228 was reconciled and passed unanimously by the State Senate in September of 2019 before being signed into law by Governor Whitmer in December.
The first four phases of the legislative process for this bill took about two years. In March of 2020, the State Suicide Prevention Commission was formally established, and I was appointed by Governor Whitmer to serve on the Commission along with 26 others. Now in the implementation phase, the Commission is working with state departments and agencies and nonprofit organizations to research the causes and possible underlying factors of suicide in Michigan and provide recommendations in an annual report to the State Legislature.
Policy change is an important and necessary part of suicide prevention work. However, it should not be thought of as the end goal, but rather as one step in a continuous process aimed at social change. Policy change is incremental and focuses on making changes within an existing system as opposed to creating systems change. The former is admirable and necessary, but the latter is what results in long-term, sustainable social change.
In addition, the process outlined above is focused on the legislative process in the United States. While the general framework and process can be adapted globally, it is also important to consider that the legislative process is not entirely democratic in all countries and the ways in which research can inform policy will vary as a result. Moreover, it is vital that both our research and our policy initiatives include the people we hope to impact—it must represent the communities we serve, particularly those who are most marginalized.
Finally, in making research more public and using it to inform policy, researchers will likely encounter increased scrutiny and opposition. Moreover, research can always be misinterpreted and misapplied thus coopting the research for ulterior motives. As stated in the American Psychological Association’s Code of Ethics, “If psychologists learn of misuse or misrepresentation of their work, they take reasonable steps to correct or minimize the misuse or misrepresentation”. This is especially important when we consider the importance of suicide research and policy change.
Ultimately, as researchers, we are obligated to do more than just science. We must also understand the consumers of our research, endeavor to make our work accessible and practical, and build relationships with leaders, policymakers, and community members. Indeed, if we hope to advance scientific discovery, curb rising suicide rates, and create social change, we have a responsibility to inform the policies and practices that impact our communities. Taking our research beyond the walls of academia has the potential to make that impact a reality and to influence long-lasting change.
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- Cockroft, A., Masisi, M., Thabane, L., & Andersson, N. (2014). Legislators learning to interpret evidence for policy. Science, 342(6202), 1244-1245. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1256911
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- Public Act No. 177. (2019). An act to create a suicide prevention commission. Retrieved from https://www.michigan.gov/documents/mdhhs/2019-PA-0177_689324_7.pdf
- American Psychological Association. (2002). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct. Available from: http://www.apa.org/ethics/code/principles.pdf
- Rappaport, J. (2005). Community psychology is (thank God) more than science. American Journal of Community Psychology, 35(3–4), 231–238. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10464-005-3402-6
Corbin J. Standley (@CorbinStandley)is a Ph.D. student and University Distinguished Fellow in the Ecological-Community Psychology program at Michigan State University. Learn more about his work at www.CorbinJStandley.com.