Seeking Evidence for How Policy Can Improve Health

Feb 7, 2017, 9:00 AM, Posted by

$2 million in research funding is available to non-profit or public research institutions that can build an evidence base for how policies, laws, and guidelines can help everyone live a healthier life.

The Capitol Building, Washington DC.

There are countless examples of how policies, laws, and guidelines can help people in our society live better and healthier lives. For example, zoning ordinances can help keep dangerous manufacturing emissions away from homes and schools, ensuring that children aren’t exposed to toxic pollutants. Earned Income Tax Credits have been shown to improve infant mortality and birth outcomes. Healthy food guidelines can help our kids consume less sugar by recommending schools provide whole foods, like apples. These policies shape how we live, learn, work, and play.

But there is still too much we don’t know. If your organization is a non-profit or public research institution, this is where you come in.

Through the Policies for Action (P4A) program, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) seeks to build a stronger evidence base for how policies, laws, and guidelines—in the public or private sectors—can help ensure everyone has the opportunity to live a healthier life.

Examples of Research

P4A, now in its second year, has more than 20 research projects already underway to build this evidence base. Each project aims to answer a current policy question about how to improve health, well-being, and equity. (We’ll describe what we mean by equity in the section below.)   

For example, one project examined the impact of a North Carolina effort offering high-quality, early childhood programs for underserved populations. The project’s early findings report strong effects on equity by improving health, graduation rates, and income later in life, yielding a 13 percent economic return to society. This research has also been covered in depth by The Atlantic and NPR.  

Other projects funded through the program answer the following questions:

Learn more about P4A’s research priorities and other funded projects.

What Do We Mean by “Health Equity”?

Building the evidence base around policies that might improve health equity is one of the primary intents of this funding opportunity. Given the varying definitions of health equity, it’s important to understand what it means for this program.

Health equity means that everyone in our diverse society has the basic essentials to be as healthy as possible. For too many of us, good health is limited by where we live, how much money we make, or discrimination that we face because of who we are. Interrelated factors—which can be biological, social, and economic—affect an individual’s state of health, and it can even impact the health of entire communities.

In that vein, we are particularly interested in research questions, perspectives, and methodologies that reach far beyond the health sector. We want to understand how policies, laws, and guidelines can address adverse conditions and influences on health and positively affect the health and well-being of a community.

Advice on Designing Your Research Proposal

Here’s some advice for putting together a strong proposal:

  • Raise a research question that truly matters to communities.

Health care. Equitable economic development. Strong collaboration between the public and private sectors. These are only a few examples of what communities value. Develop a research question that studies transformational policies or guidelines that truly matter to communities.

  • Consider a research question focused on policies that might reduce childhood obesity.

This funding opportunity sets aside $500,000 specifically for studying the impact and implementation of policies in early childhood education settings or schools that aim to support healthy weight or reduce obesity. This might include policies on nutrition or physical activity—or a novel approach to these issues.

  • Focus the question on health outcomes.

Policy research often examines measures like cost and access, which are important, but do not necessarily shed light on health outcomes. This funding opportunity is ultimately about identifying how policies might create better health and wellness in an equitable manner. Understanding the costs, access, and implementation of the policies is also important.

  • Concentrate on how policies, laws, and guidelines can improve health proactively—and generate lifelong benefits.

It’s about creating better environments for successful outcomes. Target preventative rather than remedial strategies. We’re also interested in exploring how policies, laws, and guidelines might produce lifelong, multigenerational benefits.

  • Propose research in an area that hasn’t already been funded by P4A.

Familiarize yourself with research underway, review our research priorities, and find new angles or new topics to study.

  • Build a research team who can best answer the question at hand.

To study policies that reduce childhood obesity, you may not need a full team of obesity researchers. Consider instead a multi-disciplinary team. For example, an obesity physician, a social scientist, and an education policy expert can use mixed methodologies to study the interrelated and complex factors that are at the root of the epidemic.

  • Use existing data when possible.

Data collection is often a lengthy—and costly—ordeal. We encourage you to think creatively about using existing data sets in smart and cost-effective ways.

  • Emphasize how your research findings are actionable.

The research should motivate decision-makers to use the evidence you’ve generated to create healthier policies, laws, and guidelines. Describe how your research translates into action.

To realize a culture where everyone can live the healthiest lives possible, we need supportive policies, laws, and guidelines in both the public and private sectors. We want all aspects of health and wellness to be as natural as breathing clean air and as easy as picking up an apple. If you have a research idea, we want to hear from you.


About the Authors

Headshot of Kerry Anne McGeary

Kerry Anne McGeary, PhD, is a senior program officer and nationally-recognized economist whose extensive research has focused on economic policy, health economics, and health services.

Read her full bio

Mona Shah

Mona Shah, PhD, is a program officer who is deeply committed to research and its potential to impact health and health care.

Read her full bio