January 15, 2013 by Esther
One theme stressed by many of our speakers was the importance of using evidence in the creation of policy and programs. Coming from an academic setting, this was of course music to my ears. Who wouldn’t want to believe that everything coming out of Washington is based on sound science and a careful consideration of all the available research? Of course, it’s not that simple. Even given that there is existing research, interpreting it can be tricky and lead different groups to make different conclusions. One speaker from a USDA research office stressed that it was his office’s goal that the research it conducted be accepted by all sides, so that the debate could be about what to do based on the evidence, not on the evidence itself. This is great, but the comment mainly struck me in its indirect reference to the amount of conflict surrounding policy decisions: the assumption was that there would be vigorous disagreement about what to do, with the preservation of the evidence itself as neutral ground a bit of a forlorn hope. I had hoped to find a more collaborative atmosphere; instead I was struck again at how combative out current political environment can be. On a brighter note, collaboration was shown to be fully possible—whether nationally in the Let’s Move campaign which has brought together many different constituencies or internationally in the way international agencies work with each other and governments to address issues of worldwide concern. But either way, the sense that everyone is figuring things out as they go along, based partly on evidence but based also on what can be negotiated with supporters and contenders. I thought menu labeling was an interesting example of this: there is evidence for it, but part of the reason it’s happening NOW even though all the research on the most effective ways to label isn’t in yet is that the NRA has chosen to back it. Of course, regulations can be adjusted over time to incorporate new knowledge. And that’s one of the main things I came away with from DC: policy making is an iterative process, with continuous room for adjustment. Just at the moment, that thought is leaving me feeling exhausted.
In the end, I was impressed by the sheer amount of experience and hard work pouring through our capital. Despite what seemed to me a thoroughly daunting environment, there are clearly many dedicated and determined professionals working to bring about change—and that change is happening. Circumstances and initiatives may change with the political landscape, but many of our speakers testified to how years of effort eventually paid off. I definitely came away with the message that both persistence and the readiness to pounce on opportunity when it is offered are essential.
As a final thought, I found the career pathways of our speakers to be strikingly varied. It was both encouraging and unnerving to see the strange twists and odd opportunities that had led so many of them to different places or duties than they had originally expected. It will be interesting to see what lies ahead after the MPH!