Researchers bring their expertise on issues of the day to lawmakers

“We bring experts with no agenda. When you build that partnership and trust, we become part of the process, and we make policy better for the commonwealth,” said Robyn McDougle, director of the VCU Center for Public Policy.

Two people reviewing a document at a desk.
Blythe Bowman Balestrieri, Ph.D., associate professor of criminal justice, speaks with Virginia Sen. George Barker. (Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs)

Virginia Commonwealth University faculty are helping to ensure policymakers are fully informed on key decisions through a program that puts researchers in the room with lawmakers to use their expertise to explain complex topics on the policy agenda.

The Translational Research Fellows program grew out of an outreach effort by the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at VCU. Each year, the school conducts a poll of Virginia legislators asking them about the research they want to see from university faculty. Through that effort, Robyn Diehl McDougle, Ph.D., associate professor and director of the Center for Public Policy, said the university built relationships with lawmakers and saw an opportunity. “The polling experience was what allowed me to begin to engage with policymakers and start to see the potential opportunities for faculty to be able to bring forward their research expertise and translate it from the academic process into a format useful to policymakers,” McDougle said.

It was a unique idea, and McDougle did not know of any other institutions of higher education that were trying to present research-based data on important public policy questions directly to lawmakers. 

“There really was not a model that I was aware of,” McDougle said. “It was just years of work with policymakers.” 

Learning to speak with policymakers

To be part of the program, which is in its third year, researchers apply for the fellowship by March 1 to be part of the next year’s cohort. Up to 10 faculty members are selected based on topics of interest to policymakers, and the type of research the applicant wants to present.

“It’s more about the timing of their research as it relates to public policy agenda making in the commonwealth,” said Shelly Smith, a clinical associate professor in the Department of Adult Health and Nursing Systems who was a fellow the first year. “What you don’t want to do is take somebody whose research is not on the public policy radar, because they would not be able to have successful dialogue.”

Smith, who is now director of the program, serves as a mentor for the fellows and helps prepare them for the meetings. One challenge is converting the language of academia into public policy. It’s a matter of talking about complex subjects in a way that lawmakers understand, she said. 

“A lot of the fellows ask, ‘how do I prepare,’” Smith said. “I tell them they are the expert, and they will be surprised how much information they can share readily.” 

Smith identifies three lawmakers she believes will be interested in the research. She looks at previous legislation a lawmaker has sponsored and topics the person often discusses. Smith reaches out to a lawmaker and asks for a meeting. Usually, the lawmaker is receptive and a sit down is scheduled. 

The meeting starts with the fellow presenting the material. Smith said the legislator is usually engaged and asks pertinent questions about the topic, which leads to an organic discussion.

“Many times, what you get from those meetings is building trust,” McDougle said. “Many people might never have met us or been exposed to our work. That is very different in the public policy arena. We bring experts with no agenda. When you build that partnership and trust, we become part of the process, and we make policy better for the commonwealth.”

The program leaders have learned over time that lawmakers are less interested in the data and more concerned with human interaction. They want a person to connect with and answer questions. 

So far, three bills have passed based on information provided by the fellows, including one resulting from Smith’s research.

Early success

Smith, a nurse practitioner, did research on nurse practitioner outcomes and their impact on access care. Virginia was one of only 13 states that had a restricted scope of practice for nurse practitioners, and Smith wanted to present her findings to lawmakers.

“Virginia was behind the ball on that,” Smith said. “My proposal was how can we get Virginia more in line with national trends regarding scope of practice?”

The legislature was interested in the topic, and three legislators who would be receptive to Smith’s research were identified. The goal was not to lobby the state legislature or press for particular outcomes. Smith presented the research, and those meetings started a conversation that helped shape public policy. 

“The idea is that the university has so many experts in their fields, and they can help shape public policy,” Smith said. “It’s not an advocacy program. It’s really a program about sharing information in a meaningful way to a legislator or other policy entities. The goal is to have decision-making based on evidence.” 

A bill was introduced that addressed some of the issues from Smith’s research. When the bill went before a committee, Smith was asked to speak and answered questions from lawmakers based on her understanding of the topic, which allowed them to make better decisions.

The bill passed, and Smith is proud that she was able to make a difference. 

Benefits to researchers

David Naff, Ph.D, is a fellow during the current legislative session. He is the assistant director of research and evaluation at the Metropolitan Educational Research Consortium, a research institute within the VCU School of Education that works with seven local school districts. The organization’s research focuses on school climate, teacher morale and retention, racial disparities in school discipline, professional development in culturally diverse schools and equitable access and support for advanced coursework. 

Naff said he sees himself as a facilitator of information and someone who can help guide the decision-making process. He said the program has done an excellent job of preparing him to make a presentation.

“I had terrific support from Shelly Smith, my liaison with the TRF program,” Naff said. “She helped set meetings with local legislators and we often talked through the process ahead of time so I would know what to expect.” 

He said the consortium’s research is pertinent to lawmakers because it is Virginia-based and education is an important topic within the legislature. Naff knows he has something to offer policymakers and is excited about meeting with lawmakers. 

“I hope to establish connections with policymakers and other researchers in our community because I believe that impactful research should be a collaborative process that incorporates the perspectives of multiple stakeholders,” Naff said. 

Toward the future

Smith and McDougle both believe VCU’s location plays a role in the program’s success. VCU is a city university and located blocks from the state capitol. That has made it easier to establish relationships and get fellows in front of lawmakers. 

The goal now is to create a dialogue between lawmakers and the university. Lawmakers always have questions about specific public policy areas, and the program is looking to create a portal where lawmakers could start the conversation. The lawmaker would log into the system and identify a particular area in which they are seeking a subject-matter expert. The program would seek to identify someone within the university who could fulfill the need. 

“We need to communicate in a way that makes the program available to lawmakers and academics,” McDougle said.

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