Lost in Translation: Talking I-O With Policymakers and Funding Agencies
Andrew Collmus and Michael Litano
Description of Present Column
Whether pursuing a career as a scientist-practitioner or continuing to ascend the ranks of academia, early-career I-O professionals are likely to be in a position in which they must translate I-O specific topics to members of legislature. Acquiring grant funding is a near necessity to obtain tenure as an I-O professor, and the federal government is one of the leading employers of I-O psychologists, either as civil servants or via contract work (SIOP Member Salary Survey, 2016). A crucial aspect of success as an I-O professional lies in our ability to effectively communicate why we should be granted federal funding and how our research can influence federal policy related to the workplace. As a result, we sought to understand the intricacies of I-O translation when communicating with members of the federal government. We interviewed three esteemed I-O psychologists who each have demonstrated expertise and achievement in these areas: Denise Rousseau, Debra Major, and Lorenzo Galli (see biographies below).
The remainder of this column is structured as follows. First, we map the current interviewees’ responses onto the table of practical recommendations for effective I-O translation that we developed in column 2 of this series and discuss the unique applications of such strategies when communicating with federal policy makers and funding bodies. Next, we highlight the interviewees’ experiences that are unique to translating to these audiences and relay their advice. Finally, we close by discussing ways for the I-O community to be more effective in this area and share translation-related resources recommended by the interviewees.
Translation Themes in Communicating With Policymakers
Understand your Audience
After our three interviews, we were pleasantly surprised by how well our original set of translation recommendations applied to the current topic. All three interviewees emphasized the importance of understanding your audience regardless of who you are communicating with. Dr. Rousseau noted, “whether communicating science to practitioners or policy makers, it’s all in the eye of the beholder… what the person is interested in and how they think about problems.” She continued by distinguishing between using I-O to diagnose or understand a problem and using I-O to solve a problem that one already knows that s/he has, stressing that understanding that policy makers are looking for the latter is the first step to translation.
I think one of the first issues in the translation process is to think about what needs end-users might have, and how to help them know if the research area we are describing is likely to be relevant to the potential problems they’re dealing with. What I feel the first issue in trying to communicate to both practitioners and those in the federal government is to help them map the likely problem spaces that the area of research we’re working on might apply to. I think often people have a solution-orientation, but I have learned that diagnosis and problem identification may be more important to the subsequent process, because if they get that right or reasonably well identified, what comes after that is likely to be much more effective.
Dr. Major built on this insight, recognizing that although what it means to be an effective translator when communicating with federal policy makers and funding agencies may vary, no matter the audience, one needs to communicate how s/he can help solve problems that they find important.
Oftentimes you are connected to (funding agencies/ policy makers) because they need help fixing something, changing something, or understanding a problem at hand… with respect to funding agencies, there’s a very important need to explain the value of I-O psychology relative to the problem because it’s not uncommon for (members of one discipline) to look (within their discipline) when researching issues in their field… it’s important to communicate how we can help them understand their problem.
Simplify the Presentation of Information
After understanding your audience—their needs, their problems, their desired outcomes—it is essential to simplify the presentation of information in effective I-O translation. In fact, the intention of Lorenzo Gallì’s nonprofit, ScienceForWork, is to do just that.
ScienceForWork is a nonprofit that provides decision makers with trustworthy and useful insights from organizational and management science. Decision makers often make decisions based on professional experience or the interests of stakeholders. ScienceForWork aims to make high quality information from I-O science available to them—we take the most relevant studies, usually meta-analyses, and appraise their trustworthiness, then summarize the findings in plain English. To make sure that anyone can understand these studies, we strip the technical jargon, increase their visual appeal, and make them easy to read and understand so they can talk to their colleagues and fellow policy makers about it. We try to get all the quality and reliability of scientific research into a 5-minute reading. We also include a lot of tips for how to put into practice what you have just learned.
Mr. Gallì also identified some other ways to simplify the presentation of information when translating I-O, including visualization and storytelling.
Use graphs, diagrams, et cetera. Make effect sizes visual, because data and numbers alone won’t help your audience understand the impact of what you are proposing. Use references—so they know where to look if they want more information—and use stories because people can always relate to stories. We use narratives in our heads to understand different situations, problems and opportunities. We make emotional connections through stories. And so, the idea is that you can use success and failure stories to make examples of how the evidence works in real life. And when you tell a story, people will say “Yes! I have experienced that as well” or “I can relate to that,” and then they will understand the evidence better.
Dr. Rousseau, who sits on the advisory board for the Behavioral Science and Policy Association (BSPA), states that the goal of her organization* is to, “produce intellectual information in ways that can easily be disseminated and understood, that is readily available to people in Washington and other centers where researchers and policy makers can engage in these conversations.”
Dr. Major furthered this conversation on simplifying the presentation of information both to funding agencies and policy makers. With respect to the former, she described the approach she takes when applying for grant funding:
I think you have to stay rooted in the strong science that distinguishes our field from people who do work based on intuition or prior experience, and the unique (methods) that we have to offer. At the same time, I think we need to combine that with a compelling narrative. When I am writing a grant proposal for NSF, I always have those things in mind. The up-front part of the proposal is the compelling story - engaging them in ‘here’s the problem, this is why it’s important, and this is how the theory and the constructs I want to study are going to help address this problem.’ And then, there’s the part where we explain how we’re going to do this – and that is the rigor in terms of research methods, measurement, data analyses. Funding success is based on having both. I would say there are situations in which you’ll be called to emphasize on one more than the other, but both are fundamental.
Dr. Major represented SIOP at the 2016 Coalition for National Science Funding (CNSF) Capitol Hill Exhibit. In addition to networking with other scientists, she also had the opportunity to communicate the importance of her research to key members of federal funding agencies and members of Congress.
When France A. Córdova, the director of NSF, stopped by my goal was to share my research in a manner that highlighted the value of I-O. I focused on sharing compelling findings that align with the goals of NSF. Ultimately, I wanted to demonstrate how funding the research had been money well spent. Congressional representatives and their staffers wanted synopses and soundbites that could be shared with either their constituents or their fellow congressmen. Some saw links to personal experiences. One congressman told me that his daughter was majoring in math, and he felt that she was encountering some of the barriers that my research was uncovering. Making that connection provided an opportunity to emphasize the importance of continuing to fund this type of research.
Building Trust and Quality Relationships With Policymakers
In addition to the two broad themes discussed above, the interviewees drew attention to some unique themes and challenges that did not previously emerge in past interviews. The idea of building trust and quality relationships with numerous stakeholders manifested in each of our interviews. Dr. Rousseau specifically noted that the general idea behind the BSPA is that the fundamental transfer of information happens through quality relationships
The focus of the BSPA is to build quality relationships between researchers and policy makers to begin having a network of people with interests in communicating with each other and understanding the different spaces… Part of it is to build relationships around tasks. You find areas where policy folks already are, or have put effort into and you use that as a basis for a conversation about potential research hooks… I think the idea with the BSPA is: even though we are producing an intellectual product in different ways that can be easily disseminated, it’s also about being available to people in Washington and other city centers where we can convene policy makers and researchers so those conversations happen.
Special Challenges in Public Organizations
Working with the federal government presents unique challenges that an I-O professional might not consider or realize:
- The diffuse nature of decision making in public organizations: It is often difficult for individuals to commit their organization to a course of action—although the may really want to.
- policy makers and funding agencies have limited resources and are accountable for public money.
- They ask us very specific questions, and as I-O psychologists we usually end up saying “it depends,” and the decision makers and policy makers generally do not like uncertainty.
- Often others parties are trying to sell them an easy answer.
These unique challenges highlight the need for persistence and patience for I-Os hoping to affect federal policy and funding decisions and also stress the importance of simple communication that summarizes key findings relevant to policymakers’ immediate needs.
Most translation best practices are transferable to government settings. Our interviewees emphasized the importance of building trust and high quality, long term relationships in addition to previously identified best practices. In our next two columns, we will be building on the idea of simplifying the presentation of information by synthesizing interview responses related to effective verbal and visual communication of validity evidence
*Note: When discussing the mission of the BSPA, Dr. Rousseau heavily stressed the importance of Sim Sitkin’s leadership and vision.
Lorenzo Galli is the Founder of ScienceForWork, a nonprofit association that provide decision makers with trustworthy and useful insights from the science of organizations and people management. He also works at Mercer, where—as a behavioral scientist and consultant—he specializes in integrating science and practice to create evidence-based HR solutions.
Dr. Debra A. Major is an eminent scholar and professor of Industrial-Organizational Psychology at Old Dominion University. She serves as the graduate program director and associate chair for Research in the Department of Psychology. Her research, which broadly focuses on barriers to career development for women and minorities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) has received continuous funding from the National Science Foundation for nearly 15 years. In April 2016, Dr. Major represented SIOP at the 22nd annual Coalition for National Science Funding (CNSF) Capitol Hill Exhibition in Washington, D.C.
Dr. Denise M. Rousseau is the H.J. Heinz II University Professor of Organizational Behavior and Public Policy at Heinz College and the Tepper School of Business, Carnegie Mellon University. She is the faculty chair of the Health Care Policy and Management program. In 2007, Dr. Rousseau founded the Evidence-Based Management Collaborative: a network of scholars, consultants, and practicing managers to promote evidence-informed organizational practices and decision making. Its outreach today operates as the Center for Evidence-Based Management (www.cebma.org). In addition to serving on the advisory board for the Behavioral Science and Policy Association, Dr. Rousseau has developed several online Open Learning Initiative training modules related to evidence-based management (oli.cmu.edu) freely accessible to the public.