Working with others to build a Culture of Health—the vision of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation—is no small task, particularly when academics, policymakers, and practitioners operate in silos with limited opportunities to share knowledge. The challenge becomes even more daunting when policies demand action from multiple sectors and disciplines. Economists, housing advocates, health care providers, urban planners, and criminal justice experts seem to speak different languages at times, and can pursue divergent policy priorities.

The Policies for Action (P4A) research Hub at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service sought to bridge this gap by bringing together researchers from across the country, policymakers from greater New York City, and practitioners and advocates from local service organizations for the NYU Policies for Action Research Conference: The Intersection of Social Policies and Urban Health. Held in May at the Wagner School, the conference gave us an opportunity to discuss and debate our research agenda, disseminate preliminary findings from nine studies on the relationship between non-health social policies and health outcomes for low-income New Yorkers, and offer recommendations for policy action and future research. The day showcased research from NYU P4A investigators focused on four sectors: housing, criminal justice, transportation, and education.

As researchers, we are trained to be rigorous and methodical in our work. The processes of study design, data collection and cleaning, and interpretation can take years and incur substantial costs. While this level of rigor gives academic research its credibility, this process may hinder applicability of research.  Studies show that findings from academic research take, on average, seventeen years or more to reach policymakers and have real-world impact.

Yet as Sherry Glied, dean of the Wagner School and principal investigator of our P4A research hub, notes in a recent article, one-to-one contact between policymakers and researchers is critical to advance evidence-based policy. As part of our research agenda, we have developed partnerships with advocates, practitioners, and elected and appointed officials across sectors to help us select and pursue research questions that have real world relevance.  Our P4A conference gave us an opportunity to showcase a few of the partnerships that have been vital to our work and to continue to solicit feedback and ideas from our partners on what our next set of research questions should be.

When Wagner P4A postdoctoral researcher Kai Hong presented his findings from our evaluation of the impact of NYC’s recent universal pre-kindergarten policy on low-income children’s and mothers’ health utilization, panelists from the NYC Department of Education encouraged us to consider ways to incorporate geographic variation and data on pre-k quality—data that was recently made public—to better understand whether certain sites or areas were more likely than others to link children to early health screenings. By bringing together leadership from local government and researchers from the RAND Corporation and University of Wisconsin to discuss the study, we walked away with both recommendations around methodology and suggestions about how to strengthen the value of the findings for policy action.

We also hosted Jonathan F.P. Rose from Rose Companies and Terri Ludwig from Enterprise Community Partners—two prominent advocates and developers of green and affordable housing—to share reactions to our research on public housing renovations, neighborhood change, and health alongside two leading academic experts from Johns Hopkins University and MIT. The practitioners gave us ideas for new metrics of housing and neighborhood quality that they have develop and used—such as the Opportunity 360 tool from Enterprise Community Partners—while the academics placed our research in the context of prior landmark studies and their own ongoing research to paint a more complete picture of housing and health.

Across all four areas of focus, our NYU P4A research conference planted the seed for ways to enhance the real-world applicability of our research. While the work of bringing together stakeholders and researchers across sectors is ongoing, the NYU P4A research team was inspired to see the enthusiasm from participants who came from divergent roles, organizations, and backgrounds and yet shared a common understanding of the important role non-health sectors can play in health. Our partnerships with a variety of stakeholders have strengthened our research agenda, which was evident at the many fruitful conversations at the conference.  We look forward to continuing the dialogue with local policymakers and practitioners as we pursue our next set of research questions.

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