More research-based evidence needed in MN legislative discussions about childhood obesity

Charlie Plain | August 15, 2014

How our legislators make decisions depends on a variety of factors such as expert beliefs, constituents’ opinions, political principles and research-based evidence. And while we’d like to think more decisions are made utilizing research-based evidence, a new study by researchers at the School of Public Health and the Medical School at the University of Minnesota along with collaborators at the American Heart Association and the Public Health Law Center found only 41 percent of all formal legislative discussions over childhood obesity-related bills in Minnesota from 2007-2011 cited some form of research-based evidence.

Photo credit: Michael Hicks via Flickr
Photo credit: Michael Hicks via Flickr

The new study published in the American Journal of Public Health looked to quantify the extent to which research-based evidence compared to non-research-based information was used in legislative materials about childhood obesity, an issue that continues to be prevalent not only in Minnesota but across the U.S.

“Quantifying how legislators make decisions regarding childhood obesity is important because public health researchers, like those at the University of Minnesota, have produced a considerable amount of policy-relevant research,” said Sarah Gollust, Ph.D., lead author and assistant professor in the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. “Research evidence regarding obesity costs, causes, consequences and the impact of potential policies could be of great value for policy decisions if it is translated to decision-makers effectively.”

Gollust and colleagues conducted a content analysis of materials from hearings related to 13 bills, 109 different materials in all, including letters, fact sheets, oral testimony, and reports.  They found:

  • 41 percent of all formal legislative discussions over childhood obesity-related bills in Minnesota from 2007-2011 cited some form of research-based evidence.
  • The majority of this research-based evidence was used to describe the prevalence or consequences of obesity and the impacts of policies.
  • 92 percent of all materials cited non-research-based information including constituents’ opinion, expert beliefs, political principles, and anecdotes or stories.
  • The researchers saw no evidence used to describe disparities in obesity by race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or region.

“We see that legislators do use research in their formal deliberations over childhood obesity, but there is definitely room for improvement” said Gollust.

The present study was not able to account for “back room” discussions among policymakers, lobbyists, staff and advocates, but their research group is working to better understand how research evidence is discussed in these less observable settings. Gollust and colleagues conclude that the logical next steps are to design, implement, and evaluate “evidence translation vehicles” – mechanisms to get the best relevant research to decision-makers on a timeframe and in formats that will be acceptable to and utilized by policymakers.

~ Post by Matt DePoint, Academic Health Center

© 2015 Regents of the University of Minnesota. All rights reserved. The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity educator and employer. Privacy Statement