Evaluation of Active Living Research

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Active Living Research (ALR) program was designed to stimulate and support research that would identify environmental factors and public and private policies that influence physical activity among Americans.

The Program Being Evaluated

The related American Journal of Preventive Medicine article details results from one of the two evaluations conducted of the ALR program that aimed to increase physical activity on a population level. 

The initial ALR program, funded at the level of $12.5 million, was overseen by Tracy C. Orleans, senior program officer and senior scientist at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), and awarded 121 grants over a six-year period (2001–2007.)  The national ALR program was led by James F. Sallis, PhD, MA, distinguished professor and director, ALR; and Carmen L. Cutter, MPH, co-director, ALR, at the University of California, San Diego.

About the Evaluation

The evaluation of ALR focused on whether the program had successfully built a knowledge base about policy and environmental factors conducive to physical activity; built a dynamic, transdisciplinary research community; built additional financial resources for active living research; and, used research findings from ALR studies to contribute to policy discussions on how to promote physical activity through policy and environmental change.

The evaluation, led by Laura C. Leviton, senior adviser for evaluation at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, was conducted by Gutman Research Associates, Cranbury, New Jersey. A second evaluation (not presented here) was conducted simultaneously by Kaiser Foundation Health Plans of Washington and focused on the future role of ALR and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Healthy Eating Research programs.

Major Evaluative Topics

The evaluators conducted 88 interviews, with five categories of informants: ALR grantees; other funding organizations; policy and advocacy organizations; leaders in the ALR program; and staff of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The number of grants awarded, and the fact that informants were in agreement that the ALR program helped create a new field of research, indicate that the goal of building the knowledge base has been met. The evaluators also concluded that the ALR program had fostered a high level of cross-disciplinarity, as 77 percent of investigators noted that the grant had resulted in new collaborations outside of the respondent's discipline and institution. However, an area of cross-disciplinary weakness is that only 6 percent of respondents identified themselves as policy scientists.

Building additional resources also was an area of success; between one-third and one-half of investigators, depending on how the question was worded, said they had leveraged other funds for similar research. Also, the ALR program was closely involved with the initiation of the National Institute of Health's Obesity and the Built Environment research program, and the funding attached to it. The fourth goal—the effects of the ALR program on policies—is the hardest to assess because it is difficult to quantify effects other than passed legislation.  

Summary of Methods

The evaluators concluded that while progress has been made, the program is positioned to make more dramatic inroads in this arena in its next phase. Several areas targeted for improvement are better communications among programs, and a better understanding of relationships between research and policymaking.