It is a tale of two halls. The halls of academia and the halls of government.
That’s how gerontology alumnus James “Jay” Bulot described the different cultures and often disconnected worlds of researchers and policymakers. As part of the colloquia series sponsored by the Department of Gerontology and Gerontology Institute, Bulot returned to campus to share his expertise on “Bridging the Gap Between the Researcher and Public Policy Maker” with the faculty and students of the McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies.
Bulot earned his PhD in gerontology in 2004 and immediately landed a tenure-track position at the University of Louisiana Monroe where he spent six years teaching at the state’s only gerontology master’s program. He quickly rose to leadership positions as director of the Institute of Gerontology, department head, and acting associate dean. After receiving tenure, he left academia to become the director of the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Elderly Affairs. Currently employed as the director of the Division of Aging Services at the Georgia Department of Human Services, Bulot brings a sensible but, all too often rare, perspective to decision-making in the policy arena.
“Most state officials don’t read academic journals,” Bulot told the audience, mostly of researchers and doctoral students. “In fact, the majority of state directors (of aging services) do not have advanced policy degrees. And I only know of three with PhDs.”
He acknowledged the importance of using research to inform public policy. Government leaders need to “translate the research into practice,” he noted, adding that data analysis can lead to best practices to improve health, well-being, and the efficiency and effectiveness of programs, persons, or systems.
He called for policymakers to change their focus from outputs to outcomes. “What is the return on our investment?,” he questioned. Using the example of meal delivery programs, he asked, “Are we targeting the right individuals? Are more seniors staying in their homes longer? Are they healthier because of this program?”
To bridge the gap between researchers and policymakers, Bulot offered some wise suggestions. First, develop relationships with policymakers to discuss issues or problems facing the agency. He suggested that researchers, including doctoral students seeking a dissertation topic, “adopt” an issue as part of their research agenda. He urged academics to inform the agency directors of their expertise and research skill sets and how they can assist policymakers. Finally, he advised researchers to present their findings at community meetings and to issue press releases to reach the policymaker audiences.
Having straddled both worlds of academic and government, Bulot had some important career advice about collaboration for the policy students in attendance. “Become a maven,” he told them. As a trusted and credible source of information, a policy maven “understands the culture of both the research and decision-making environments,” and therefore, “facilitates, mediates, and negotiates the exchange of information.”
Although a gerontology-sponsored event and all of Bulot’s examples were pertinent to the field of aging services, his insights were applicable to any policy field.
Françoise Carré, research director for the Center for Social Policy, attended the guest lecture.
“Thanks to his deep experience in academic research as well as high level government executive position, Dr. Bulot was able to share useful reflections on how he now sees academic research and what types of research are useful to his peers in government. His insights are provoking for all researchers concerned with making their research relevant to communities and government and useful to the efforts to improve government policies and services.”
Department chair Jeffrey Burr acknowledged not only Bulot’s message but also how the school’s curriculum allows its graduates to participate in both the halls of academia and government: “Jay Bulot’s presentation demonstrates to students, faculty, and others how it is possible to move between the academic research world and the world of policymaking. He made several important points, including that academic researchers work on a longer time line than those who must make policy in real time. Jay also noted that the stakeholders for academics and policymakers are often quite different. Academics typically respond to other academics, funders, and so forth, whereas policymakers are responsive to tax payers, politicians, the media, and the public at large. As Jay Bulot’s career trajectory shows, the Gerontology PhD and master’s programs of the McCormack School train students to contribute in both arenas.”