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Translating Research into Policy Requires Relationship Building

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By The Office of Public Policy Outreach at VCU’s Wilder School
August 10, 2018

On July 1, three of the 870 new laws that took effect in Virginia were:

  • A new 45-day maximum limit (previously 364 days) on the length of long-term school suspensions (HB1600) intended to mitigate the “school to prison pipeline” that disproportionately impacts minority students;
  • A prohibition against suspending students in pre-K through third grade for more than three days (SB170), also to mitigate disparities in discipline;
  • A provision giving nurse practitioners with more than five years of clinical experience the freedom to practice without requiring an oversight agreement from a physician (HB793), allowing nurse practitioners to provide care in rural and poor areas with an undersupply of doctors.

Linking these three bills is the fact that the chief patrons of each drew on the expertise of Wilder School Translational Research Fellows Dr. Shelly Smith (an expert on training nurse practitioners) and Dr. Genevieve Siegel-Hawley (an expert on equity in education) in drafting or amending the legislation.

Academic institutions aspire not only to create new knowledge, but also hope that the new insights generated by the thousands of highly trained researchers will improve life for the broad community. Yet laments from both academics and policymakers about the gap between them are not hard to find. Bridging that gap is a key role of the Office of Public Policy Outreach and the Translational Research Fellows program.

Each year the Office of Public Policy Outreach selects up to 10 faculty members like Smith and Siegel-Hawley from across Virginia Commonwealth University to be our Translational Research Fellows. The research areas for participants are extremely varied, including topics such as oral health disparities, solar energy policy and planning, artificial intelligence, the use of research involving animals and juvenile justice policy.


A word cloud from our directory for the 2017 Spring TRF Cohort, featuring the biographies and research interests of our Fellows.

“Part of the Wilder School’s mission is to advance research that informs public policy with a goal of improving our communities,” said Dr. Grant Rissler, the Office’s Assistant Director. “Our office is explicitly tasked with building bridges between the university and the policy world but there are some barriers to take into account. On one side, most faculty did their graduate work in a different state and have been focused on building a research portfolio in their first years at VCU. On the other, our part-time legislators here in Virginia need to process 3,000 bills in less than 60 days of the legislative session. There’s precious little time during session to seek out new sources of credible information. The Fellows program makes getting started from either end of the bridge easier.”

“The Translational Research Fellowship program… was a transformative experience,” said Shelly Smith, “Navigating the legislative process can be overwhelming. The fellowship eliminates this burden by bridg[ing] the gap between research and public policy, allowing researchers to focus on communicating the findings of their work to the appropriate public policy audience.”

Meeting faculty from other disciplines who are also interested in policy is another benefit of the program. “This unique experience [is also] an innovative approach to removing academic silos,” Smith notes.

For a new cohort, an initial training highlights the rhythms, systems and key players in the Virginia legislature as well as best practices in communicating with policymakers. Following the training, each Fellow prepares a policy brief in their area of expertise, getting feedback and design help from program coordinators. The challenge of summarizing insights that would fill a 30 page academic paper into two pages is another part of the learning experience. Once briefs are ready, the program sets up three meetings for each fellow with interested policymakers to talk about their area of expertise.

“Contrary to what many expect coming in, these meetings don’t take place during the legislative session,” Rissler says. “Our goal is to build a relationship that legislators can draw on later, when they don’t have time to seek out new people, so we set up meetings in the fall, when legislators are starting to think about what bills to sponsor.”

“Once a Fellow is seen as a credible expert by a legislator,” says Dr. Robyn McDougle, founding director of the Office and director of the Wilder School’s Center for Public Policy, “the ongoing conversations often continue into other related policy areas of interest for the lawmaker. When Shelly met with Del. Robinson the first time, they had a good connection. So Del. Robinson’s office was in touch numerous times over the course of the next session, drawing on her as a sounding board as amendments were considered.”

In the active year of being a Fellow, faculty usually invest around 40 hours of time in the full cycle of activities. But the Office maintains a connection with fellows even after their active year, continuing to build the ongoing network of relationships.


Author: The Office of Public Policy Outreach is part of the Center for Public Policy at Virginia Commonwealth University’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs. The office prepares VCU faculty for effective interactions with state and local lawmakers and helps generate and translate academic knowledge into successful public policies for the commonwealth. Email address: [email protected] | Twitter handle: @OPPOatVCU

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