Dec. 01 2021

From Paper to Policy

Science-based advocacy is a guiding principle at Columbia Mailman School.

Research is a powerful thing. As one of society’s main engines for generating knowledge, it forms the bedrock for decision-making. But particularly in public health, the biggest impact happens where the rubber meets the road—when a study or a body of work moves beyond the walls of academia to affect our daily life.

Science to improve health and prevent disease, disability, and injury was the core mandate of the School at its founding, and  scientific work by faculty and students at Columbia Mailman School has informed health policy, environmental regulations, safety rules, and other public health standards for a century. The School saw its influence surge, for example, during the leadership of Ray E. Trussell, MD, who directed the school from 1955 to 1968. A fierce advocate for improving healthcare for poor and underserved communities, he established strict evidence-based requirements for standards of care as well as regulations for informed consent in studies on human subjects at New York City hospitals that treated indigent patients. The informed consent system Trussell created eventually formed the basis for federal policy.

Through their testimony, consultations, partnerships, media appearances, and, of course, publications, the School’s researchers have helped shape legislative and policy decisions at all levels of government, from local municipalities to the U.S. Congress; they have also influenced litigation all the way to the Supreme Court and informed global health policymakers. Here are just some of the ways that impact is felt today.

Public health researchers are in a unique position to influence legislation relating to their areas of expertise, either by testifying at hearings or by offering informal advice to government officials behind the scenes. Michael Sparer, JD, PhD, professor and chair of Health Policy and Management with expertise in health insurance policy, has done both. He has had numerous opportunities to weigh in over the years—for example, when President Barack Obama, newly elected in 2008, launched an ambitious health reform agenda that eventually yielded the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Sparer provided input to congressional and other staffers on drafts of legislation and testified for legislative task forces on insurance-related topics connected to the ACA. He worked with both state and federal officials to craft proposals to permit consumers to buy into the Medicaid program, a type of “public option” that remains on the national agenda today.

His publications have also added to the discourse. Sparer was among the first to call attention to the challenges of nonprofit health insurance cooperatives, which were meant to be a new kind of insurance company under the mammoth health law. “Our study pointed out why that particular piece of legislation was not especially well-designed,” he says, “and ultimately that program has not worked out nearly as well as planned.”

Other members of the School’s faculty, too, offered their knowledge as policies took shape. Work by Jamie Daw, PhD, assistant professor of Health Policy and Management, has significantly shaped the debate over postpartum Medicaid coverage and helped set the stage for the provision in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that authorized states to temporarily extend coverage to 12 months. Sherry Glied, PhD, while a professor of Health Policy and Management, offered extensive input to legislators on how to best provide access to care for uninsured Americans. (She later left the School to serve as assistant secretary for planning and evaluation at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, where she played a key role in policy development.) Wendy Chavkin, MD, MPH ’81, now professor emerita of Population and Family Health, provided testimony to District Court in California about the importance of including reproductive health services in insurance plans’ essential benefits. Sparer says academics who study policy can offer the perspective of an objective outside participant, but one with a research-based position. “We advocate for things that we believe in, but research is the basis for our advocacy,” he says. 

Sometimes change happens not in the legislature but at the agency level. For decades, Charles Branas, PhD, Gelman Endowed Professor of Epidemiology and chair of the Department of Epidemiology, has been beating the drum for federal funding to study gun violence, which kills 40,000 and injures more than 100,000 U.S. residents each year. Until recently, funding was scant: In the 1990s, the gun lobby convinced Congress to pass a rider on a bill funding the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that effectively barred the agency from funding research on gun violence. Later, a similar prohibition was added for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). “We’ve largely done these studies on a shoestring, if not for free, to be honest, and yet they are heavily used in shaping policy and public decisions,” says Branas, whose research revealing that there are more gun suicides than homicides in the United States and that there is a greater risk of being fatally shot in a rural area than in a city was cited in multiple landmark U.S. Supreme Court decisions. 

But public sentiment is shifting, and in 2019, Congress finally appropriated $25 million annually to fund gun violence prevention research, effectively changing the agencies’ funding policy. “This is completely new; it has never happened,” says Branas, who helped lead the charge for this funding. “$25 million is nowhere near what we need, but what it is, basically, is a public acknowledgment that we can now do the work without fear of reprisal.”

Branas gives major props to now-retired U.S. Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), who chaired the House Appropriations Committee, for getting the bill passed. Branas had her ear—most significantly at a roundtable she held in the summer of 2019. He and fellow researchers at Columbia and other institutions sought $100 million in research funding within two or three years. Today, after the second annual funding round, “we are about halfway to our original goal but need to sustain this beyond just four years of support for this lifesaving research,” says Branas. Researchers from across the country can now compete for federal grants and research is already producing innovative and lifesaving solutions. 

Last year Branas and colleagues from other Columbia schools launched a new universitywide initiative called SURGE (Scientific Union for the Reduction of Gun Violence) to champion a scientific approach to gun violence reduction—“more science, less violence.” He expected a handful of researchers to attend SURGE’s first meeting, but three dozen showed up. SURGE is working with researchers from a dozen universities to promote the importance of science in developing policies to prevent gun violence. Branas says, “There are many, many great ideas out there that haven’t been given air or haven’t even been discovered yet, because as a nation, we haven’t put the resources forward, much less encouraged scientists to tackle gun violence—until now.”  

Research on controversial issues in public health policy is nothing new for the School. As a professor of clinical Epidemiology between 1999 and 2011, David Vlahov, PhD, RN, FAAN, drew on his long-standing research on HIV in intravenous drug users to build the evidence base for and awareness of New York state policies on access to clean syringes. Crystal Fuller Lewis, PhD, now associate professor of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine, extended that work while at Columbia Mailman School between 2000 and 2015.

Researchers who do lab-based science can also have an impact on legislation. Virginia Rauh, ScD, professor of Population and Family Health and vice chair of the Heilbrunn Department of Population and Family Health, had the opportunity to support state legislation banning the use of a neurotoxic insecticide called chlorpyrifos when she unexpectedly found herself face to face with the governor of Hawaii, who asked her, “Why should I sign this bill?” 

The meeting stemmed from Rauh’s research on the chemical’s toxic effects on children, which she had conducted at the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health (CCCEH) since 2000. Chlorpyrifos, made by Dow, appeared on the market in 1965 as an insecticide. The U.S. banned home use in 2000, but Rauh and other researchers kept documenting damage linked to the chemical, which was still used in agricultural settings, and in particular its damaging effect on children’s brains. Despite the accumulating evidence, the Environmental Protection Agency did not regulate chlorpyrifos further, so advocates in a few states stepped in. 

Grassroots efforts were especially strong in Hawaii. In 2018, environmental advocates there invited Rauh to present her work on chlorpyrifos’s dangers to an academic group and to a gathering of elected officials. “As an NIH-funded researcher, I do not engage in advocacy, but I do communicate scientific findings to a range of audiences,” she says. As she was leaving, Rauh was surprised to be invited by an aide to meet with Gov. David Ige. Days after they spoke, he signed the bill banning the chemical. “It was rewarding to be part of such a clear example of science being used to affect public policy,” Rauh says. 

Subsequently, California and New York state also moved to ban the chemical. Rauh, again invited by environmental advocates, presented her work to the New York State Senate’s Environmental Conservation Committee in 2019. Her presentation followed that of a speaker representing Dow, and Rauh had the opportunity to counter the speaker’s unsubstantiated remarks with convincing scientific data.  

Usually, Rauh says, CCCEH works closely with community advocates, versus communicating findings directly. Her direct involvement in translating the chlorpyrifos results opened her up to industry efforts to discredit her work. “I am grateful that the university and Dean Fried have been so supportive,” she says. In 2020, Corteva, the largest manufacturer of chlorpyrifos, said that it would cease manufacturing the product. And last August, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it would stop the pesticide’s use on all food. Rauh and her team are pleased to see the impact of their many years of work. “It doesn’t always happen that we experience the entire process of designing a study, analyzing data, disseminating results, and seeing real actions that protect vulnerable populations. This is a great lesson for public health students who are trying to make a difference. It can be done.”

Legal testimony can also evince change in public health policy, as many of the School’s faculty have seen firsthand. David Rosner, PhD, MPH, discovered its power as a historian, when he dug into the public archives of companies that produce materials deemed harmful to public health, such as lead and asbestos. Rosner, co-director of the Center for the History and Ethics of Public Health at Columbia Mailman School, and his close collaborator, historian Gerald Markowitz, PhD, at the City University of New York (CUNY), published books and articles revealing that executives knew of their products’ dangers decades before it became public. 

In 1999, Sheldon Whitehouse, now a U.S. senator for Rhode Island but at the time that state’s attorney general, asked Rosner and Markowitz to testify in a lawsuit against the paint industry, which had used lead in products for decades until the substance was banned in 1978. Millions of young children nationwide licked or ingested the sweet-tasting paint after it chipped or dissolved into dust, and elevated lead levels in their blood caused brain damage that was often irreversible. 

The attorney general explained that the testimony would help establish a new kind of public health law that would hold companies accountable not only for the harm their products had caused, but also for forestalling future damage by forcing them to pay for detoxifying the children’s homes. After seven years of preparation, the case went to trial in 2005. With the help of Rosner and Markowitz’s extensive testimony, the state won, putting the industry on the hook for $4 billion in cleanup costs. 

That victory was short-lived; the case was overturned on appeal by the state’s Supreme Court. But a similar case in California, in which the duo also testified, succeeded. And over the past decade, the historical analysis they brought to the courtroom has become a powerful new tool for public health law. “Most lawsuits are not only about the damages done, but you have to prove that a product caused the damage,” explains Rosner. Nailing down that proof is notoriously tough. These new lawsuits took a true public health approach, with a goal of preventing damage before it could happen. Companies knew these substances were harmful, but marketed them anyway—and this conveys responsibility. “History, which is usually seen as a bunch of nerds sitting in libraries, has become central to giant political battles over who should be held accountable for the damage caused by industrialization,” says Rosner, who is also Ronald H. Lauterstein Professor of Sociomedical Sciences. 

Rosner is now working with California lawyers on a case against Monsanto, the sole producer of polychlorinated biphenyls, which are toxic, cause cancer in animals, and contaminate many environments and products, including foods. Their production in the U.S. was not banned until 1978, but Monsanto had identified multiple chronic conditions associated with exposure, dating back to the 1930s. 

The legal strategy Rosner helped to pioneer is gaining steam. He fields calls from lawyers asking him to testify almost daily, and has established a program at the School that trains public health students in applying the approach to advance public health cases. In 2005, Merlin Chowkwanyun, PhD, MPH, then an intrepid undergraduate student, offered to build Rosner a website for the documents he had collected. Now, as Donald H. Gemson Assistant Professor of Sociomedical Sciences at the School, Chowkwanyun oversees the open-source platform Toxic Docs (toxicdocs.org) in collaboration with the Columbia University History Department and CUNY, on which anyone can trawl the 19 million company documents that Rosner and others have obtained over the years. 

Other Columbia Mailman School researchers have also provided powerful legal testimony in high-profile national cases. In cases underway in Ohio, California, West Virginia, and New York against manufacturers and distributors of prescription opioids and pharmacies, Katherine Keyes, PhD, MPH, associate professor of Epidemiology, is providing testimony on the health burden that opioids have placed on communities, and the role that companies played in the harm. And in 2010, while he was professor of clinical Sociomedical Sciences, Ilan Meyer, PhD, testified to the California Supreme Court against Proposition 8, a state constitutional amendment that banned same-sex marriage.

As the School educates future health leaders, it equips them to make the case for change, supported by science. First-year students try their hand at writing opinion articles about public health topics. The Career Services Office organizes annual field trips to Washington, D.C., so that students can meet with contacts in the policy world. As students hone these skills, they become the next generation of advocates changing our world for the better.


Alla Katsnelson has a PhD in mammalian brain development. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and many other outlets.