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Finding a common language

Faculty close the gap between research and policy makers to improve family health in Oregon

Child grabbing strawberries on a counter

Family Impact Seminars are one way the College of Public Health and Human Sciences (CPHHS) is living out Oregon State University’s land grant mission.

“The seminars connect state policymakers with research experts to provide the best scientific evidence on topics of current interest,” says Rick Settersten, head of the CPHHS School of Social and Behavioral Health Sciences. “They are meant to foster learning in a nonpartisan, solution-oriented way, always with a focus on the impact of policies on families.”

Connecting research and policy

The seminars, organized by an interdisciplinary CPHHS team, are based on a model from the Policy Institute for Family Impact Seminars, a national network based at land grant universities.

So far the college has hosted three seminars on topics relevant to family health — “two generation approaches to poverty” in 2015, “school and community solutions to obesity” in 2017 and “how housing policy can make a difference in child and family outcomes” in 2018.

“Based on advice received from legislators from both political parties, Oregon Family Impact Seminar leaders select a highly relevant topic,” says Bobbie Weber, research associate in the Hallie E. Ford Center for Healthy Children and Families. “In 2018, it became clear that housing would be a high priority in the 2019 legislative session and that a strong research base on the impact of housing on child and family outcomes would support the discussion.”

Rick says the team also releases whitepapers on each topic with the hope that the report will be useful in informing policy decisions that affect the well-being of children and families in Oregon.

“The researchers documented that home is so much more than a roof and four walls for a family — it’s a sense of safety, and it’s the role models we grow up with,” says CPHHS Director of Strategic Initiatives Gloria Krahn. “Stability in housing for children is about strong relationships and developing a sense of belonging in the world. When families are rent-burdened, there is so little money for other necessities.”

Seminars with impact

Each seminar has helped inform legislative actions.

In 2016 Oregon became the first state to allocate a greater percentage of the earned income tax credit to young families, providing families with more money to live on. House Bill 3141, which requires K-8 students to receive at least 150 minutes of physical education each week, was reinforced in 2017. This year, Oregon is scheduled to sign into law the first statewide rent control bill.

On two occasions, the speakers also had the special opportunity to testify before House or Senate Committees. “Facing committees and answering their questions has been a direct and effective way to help provide legislators with the research evidence they need,” Rick says. “This is precisely the impact that these seminars are meant to have.”

Emily Tomayko, assistant professor of nutrition, says that building relationships is key to success. “This committee has invested significant time in relationship-building with legislators and their staff, and these relationships have been critical to any successes borne out of these seminars.”

Sharing the knowledge

Rick says success also hinges on the availability of researchers who are suited to address the topic, who have training and experience to synthesize and translate evidence, and who have the ability to communicate well with policymakers.

Emily led the development of a journal article that documents the team’s process with the hope that others use the model to affect policies and practices in their own state. The article, “Leveraging public health research to inform state legislative policy that promotes health for children and families,” was published in the Maternal and Child Health Journal and is available free online.

“At the national level, the seminar is a well-established method of connecting researchers and policy-makers who are often passionate about the same issues but who sometimes lack a common language or forum for discussion,” Emily says.

She says an advantage of the model is that it can be adapted to each state’s context. “We intended to provide sufficient detail about the model to fill in the gaps of understanding about how these seminars actually work, recognizing that current and future users of this model may choose a slightly different approach.”

Future seminars

The team plans to offer a seminar every other September in advance of Oregon’s longer legislative sessions on odd years.

“Our campus-based committee is growing, which speaks to the interest of Oregon State faculty working at the intersection of research and policy in a way that can impact the lives of Oregon families,” Emily says.

In addition to those mentioned, the interdisciplinary collaboration in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences includes Sally Bowman, professor in Extension Family and Community Health, and Laura Arreola, executive support specialist in the Hallie E. Ford Center.