Health Policy$ense

Why Your Colleagues Aren’t on Twitter (or Facebook)

“University professors…just don’t matter in today’s great debates,” wrote New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof earlier this year, igniting a fiery national discussion on the role of academia in public policy. Kristof went on to criticize not these professors’ methods or findings, but rather the gaps between such findings and the public who can use them. His plea? Academics should take advantage of the increasing number of tools to educate the public and policymakers, especially Twitter and Facebook.

We recently completed a survey to find out what health services and health policy researchers think about these new social media methods to disseminate their findings compared to more traditional channels such as direct outreach to policymakers and traditional media. Our findings are published today in Health Affairs. On the optimistic side, researchers think social media can be effective. But many were not confident in using it and felt that neither their peers nor academic institutions valued or respected it as a legitimate communication tool. Only 14% reported using Twitter and 21% reported blogging in the past year.

Even more sobering, we asked researchers open-ended questions about social media as a method to disseminate health policy relevant research and their responses were largely skeptical. They described social media as incompatible with research. They were also concerned they could damage their reputation or get into trouble using it and generally were uncertain of its efficacy and how it works.

So what does this mean for the future of health policy research dissemination and evidence-based policymaking? Clearly, there is lots of room for improvement in fostering the development of better channels between research, researchers, and policymakers. Social media may serve as one such channel, but academics may need to see proof that it works before they widely adopt it. Moreover, while some of the barriers to such technology adoption by academics will surely naturally fade (we found that junior faculty were significantly more optimistic about the potential, efficacy, and scope of social media compared to senior faculty), many of us could use a boost right now. Training, technical support, and infrastructure to facilitate (and not stigmatize) the legitimate use of social media within the academy would help.

There is little doubt that social media can improve the way health policy research is translated and communicated. Blogs and microblogs, such as Twitter, serve as examples of how research findings can be targeted and communicated to relevant audiences. These platforms can curate news and research results, by hosting trusted voices to bring meaning to complicated or nuanced findings. They are faster, briefer, and sometimes less formal than traditional media, but can also provide rich information by pushing followers — usually by way of links — to original research and content.

We need to figure out what types of research would best be served if communicated through social media channels. While the findings of no high quality, policy-relevant investigation should remain forever isolated in the pages of an ivory-tower journal, some policy studies are more “shovel-ready” than others. Social media provides an opportunity to tailor the right information for the right audiences. How to accomplish this is an important next step in the effort to translate knowledge for better, evidence-based, health policy decisions.