Shaping policy with science: Highlights from the Bixby symposium

On March 2, the one-year anniversary of the Supreme Court hearing Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the Bixby Center and BIRCWH convened a symposium focused on science’s role in shaping policy.

In her opening remarks, UC Berkeley’s Ann Keller drew on the work of political scientists, such as Carol Weiss and Thomas Kuhn, to frame the conversation and outline the different pathways through which information can enter and influence policymaking processes.

The first panel, moderated by Radhika Rao, featured Drs. Dan Grossman, Lauren Ralph and Monica McLemore. Respectively, the policy victories their research catalyzed were: the Whole Woman’s Health decision striking down abortion restrictions, debunking a parental notification ballot initiative, and expanding the pool of providers eligible to provide early abortion care. All three panelists emphasized the key role that external partners, such as advocacy groups and professional associations, played in translating their research into policy impact.

The second panel, moderated by Sarah Roberts, featured Drs. Craig Cohen, Cynthia Harper and Phil Darney (sitting in for Uta Landy). Respectively, the changes their research achieved were: integrating family planning and HIV care in Kenya, making emergency contraception available OTC, and establishing the Ryan Residency and Fellowship in Family Planning programs. The panelists stressed the importance of persistence and patience—and seizing the moment when a window for policy change does open.

In closing, Bixby Center co-founder Claire Brindis summarized a key thread from the day’s discussion: “Data is crucial, but it is insufficient.” To effect change with our science, we must venture outside of academia and engage with the places and people that shape policy. Our encounters with the policy process may be uncomfortable, unsuccessful or even unfair, but its potential for impact is too great to ignore it.