Which state policymakers are reading your science communication emails, really?

By Jessica Pugel

Nov 16, 2021


Minute Read


Jessica Pugel is a Research Associate at the Research-to-Policy Collaboration. She studies how to improve relationships between researchers and policymakers with the goal of increasing the use of research in policy, and recently published a paper in Policy & Internet about state legislator email engagement. Jessica holds an M.A. in Psychology (emphasis in Social Psychology) from San Diego State University and a B.A. in Psychology from California State University, Long Beach.

The first rule in science communication is to “know your audience”: be aware of what your intended readers care about, and then write in a way that appeals to those motivations. But that might be all for naught if you cannot reach your audience. This is especially important when the audience consists of policymakers, given the scarce resources allotted to science-policy communication and the widespread impact such communication can have.

Despite the importance of email for these communications, there had not been any research about emailing legislators since 2002 (before MySpace was founded!). Given the massive change in the online landscape in the past two decades, a reevaluation was long overdue. Our team at the Research-to-Policy Collaboration implements science translation and science communication models and then evaluates them. We were primed to study email engagement when COVID hit. In direct response to Congressional offices’ pandemic-related research needs, our Rapid Response Network created timely research syntheses such as fact sheets or policy briefs. Our team then distributed these products to approximately three thousand state legislators who worked on health and family issues then tracked email engagement for the two weeks following each distribution.

Across five science emails distributed in Summer 2020, we found four reliable groups of legislators based on how they engage. We found that 46% never opened; 19% always opened quickly; 19% opened quickly when they did open, but only opened a few of the emails; and 16% opened slowly when they did open, and only opened a couple of emails.

After determining the groups, we then looked at who was in each of them. We found that party affiliation, age, having had graduate education, and presence of research evidence language in their legislation did not help differentiate one group from another. Three characteristics were important in differentiating the groups, however. Female legislators, white legislators, and junior legislators were more engaged in email, relative to male legislators, BIPOC legislators, and senior legislators, respectively. 

These patterns can be understood in the context of legislative power and social norms. Female legislators may be more attentive to emails (i.e., constituent services) because of gender norms that expect women to be more caring than males. BIPOC legislators may have less time to attend to email because of necessary intercultural effort and the minority tax (e.g., serving on caucuses of disenfranchised social groups). Senior legislators have more staff to whom they can redirect their email influx, and often have more responsibilities (e.g., chairing committees), than junior legislators.

This means that legislators engage in predictable ways and that there are meaningful differences in who are in those groups, suggesting that we can better allocate our scarce science communication resources. Female legislators, white legislators, and more junior legislators are more likely to engage quickly and consistently with emails they receive. Science communicators should email these groups with relevant, timely material to initiate relationships with them, as trusting relationships are known to be one of the most effective ways to impact policy. Communicators should use strategic message testing (such as Long et al., 2021) to learn how to reach those in the middle. 

Finally, these findings point to the need to find more creative ways of engaging with the state legislators unlikely to open emails. These solutions could range in complexity, from just emailing their staff or using social media, to visiting in person, to leaning on mutual networks to gain access. Whatever strategy is pursued, it should also be evaluated for its effectiveness. It is critical to the success of science communication efforts that we not only understand our audience’s motivations but know how to reach them, too.

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