Policy-Contribution Assessment and Field-Building Analysis of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Active Living Research Program

This paper describes an evaluation of the Active Living Research (ALR) program; the evaluation, requested by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, is specifically aimed at past and future policy outcomes of the ALR program. Another aim of the evaluation is to determine potential users of ALR products. Therefore, the guiding questions of this evaluation were: How well is ALR working to increase research and practice focused on policy and environmental factors related to physical activity? And, how well are research findings from ALR studies contributing to policy discussions on these topics? A separate evaluation focused on research production, so that this evaluation could focus on use of research.

Evaluators conducted telephone interviews with 136 representatives of potential users of ALR research products, including state activity and nutrition program coordinators, policy-makers, scientists, and funders. Literature reviews and biometrical analyses also were used. Evaluators found ample evidence that the field research and action on physical activity, the built environment, healthy eating and childhood obesity prevention was growing, by measuring parameters such as research support and a growing body of published literature. Another important component of this evaluation was determining whether key informants recognized that the ALR had played a role in developing science related to active living. Again, the answers to these questions were positive: a high percentage of all informants had heard of ALR, and many were aware of at least one ALR study; more than two-thirds of scientists and policy-makers who had heard of an ALR study also had contact with an ALR researcher.

To answer the question of whether ALR has contributed to policy discussions, informants were asked if they were aware of instances in which ALR research had influenced policy. Of 81 respondents to this question, 25 percent indicated they were aware of such cases, 66 percent were not aware, and the rest were unsure. However, when the phrase "contributed to policy" was expanded beyond the narrow definition of 'the passage of legislation,' informants' answers indicated more of an effect of ALR's programs.

The evaluators concluded, in part, that waiting for data from long-term projects may have caused missed opportunities to address fruitful short-term policy opportunities. They also offered five recommendations to enhance effectiveness of the ALR:

  1. provide clear incentives for researchers to focus on early applied policy implications of their work; 
  2. boost visibility and relevance of policy;
  3. emphasize collaboration and coordination among policy-makers, researchers, city planners and others;
  4. strengthen evaluation and measurement of policy; and
  5. increase training for both researchers and policy-makers in shaping policy related to the aims of the ALR.