A key part of the research translation pipeline involves making research understandable for policymakers, most of whom do not have scientific or technical backgrounds. One of the main avenues through which this translation for policymakers occurs is also one that academics may not even know about: the Congressional Research Service (CRS). As part of the legislative branch, CRS has been providing research and analysis to Congress for over 100 years, and only recently did its reports become accessible by the public.
What is CRS?
Part of the Library of Congress, CRS has been called “Congress’s think tank” and consists of nearly 600 employees, including experts in almost every conceivable area of science, law, economics, and more. A sister organization to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and the Government Accountability Office (GAO), CRS provides support exclusively to Congressional committees, members of Congress, and their staff members. This support can take several different forms, including reports, memoranda, and briefings. Key characteristics of the support CRS provides, which are mandated by law, include:
- Confidentiality - requests, information, and discussions between CRS and Congress are often confidential (more on this below);
- Balance – CRS must present all sides of an issue in an objective, non-partisan manner; and
- Neutrality – CRS is not allowed to make policy recommendations but can conduct analyses and provide information on the impact of proposed policies.
Above all, CRS ensures that Congress has available “the best possible information and analysis on which to base the policy decisions the American people have elected them to make”.
CRS is a trusted source
One common way CRS supports Congress is by responding to individual requests from Congressional offices. For example, a staffer who may be considering drafting a bill related to the rising cost of prescription drugs can submit a confidential request to CRS for information on prescription drug importation. In response, CRS will do any number of things, depending on the details of the staffer’s inquiry. CRS may simply respond via email with a summary of the existing literature including citations, source materials, etc. CRS may also write a more comprehensive and thorough report on the topic and/or have a meeting with the staffer to walk through the information and answer questions. Maintaining confidentiality during this process is critical for many reasons. For a member of Congress, if a request were widely known it could signal the member’s priorities, a lack of knowledge on a particular topic, or possible legislation under consideration – all of which a member might not necessarily want made public at that time. Because requests are confidential (and by law must be balanced and objective), Congress has viewed CRS as a trusted source of information since 1914 and submits more than 60,000 requests per year.
In addition to the confidential services CRS provides members of Congress, CRS will produce reports independent of a Congressional request. These reports “attempt to assess emerging issues and developing problems” and provide historical and/or legislative context to major policy issues. Oftentimes these reports are anticipatory in nature, meaning if CRS anticipates receiving many requests on a certain topic, perhaps due to an upcoming re-authorization of significant legislation, they will create reports preemptively to address Congress’s inquiries. In turn, members of Congress rely heavily on these additional reports to inform their policy decisions. In 2017, members of Congress accessed these reports through the Library of Congress’s secure site almost 700,000 times.
However, for over one hundred years, these reports were not available to the public. Sometimes they would “leak” into the public domain and could be found on various websites, but they were not verified or catalogued in any meaningful way. Then, in September 2018, per new legislation, CRS was required to begin making their reports available to the public (reports generated through confidential inquiries still remain confidential). Available at CRSreports.congress.gov, academics and others can now browse over 3,000 reports to see what – and how – research is being translated to policy makers. While CRS has only made available active reports published since September, they have plans to make the full inventory of reports available over time.
The release of CRS reports offers essential insight into the research-to-policy pipeline. If we want to make sure our research findings are translated properly to policymakers, and we know CRS is a conduit, seeing how CRS presents research in their reports gives us a guide for how we can write academic manuscripts or other research outputs so that they are easily accessible, translatable, and useable.
Next week, a second blog post presents a discussion of exactly how academics can tailor their research so that it is useful for CRS, policymakers, and the public.