A researcher’s guide to identifying policy-relevant research questions for the federal government



Social science researchers play an important role in the policymaking process. Researchers help policymakers at all levels of government to understand key trends and issues in the U.S. economy and society, produce important descriptive facts about the world that can inform policy responses, and track the past or project future impacts of policies on key outcomes and populations.

For social scientists to have this kind of impact on policymaking, they need to produce research that speaks to the issues, questions, and priorities that are relevant to policymakers. What are the types of social science evidence that are most helpful to government decision-makers? And how can researchers find out the issues and questions that are most likely to be relevant to government agencies?

This resource guide addresses both of these questions, focusing on the federal government and social science research. It presents the different ways that federal agencies often use social science research when formulating policies, implementing new programs, evaluating policies’ impact, and communicating with the public, using recent examples from the Biden-Harris administration. It also details a variety of publicly accessible and regularly updated resources where researchers can learn about federal agencies’ current and longer-term priorities, pointing to research topics or questions that could help social scientists conduct relevant work for decision-makers, including both political leaders and career civil servants.

Throughout the guide, I draw on my own prior experience serving in the Biden-Harris administration at the U.S. Department of Labor and the White House Office of Management and Budget, where I was often in the role of translating social science research to aid policy decisions in those agencies. While many of my examples come from those agencies as a result, I also include examples from other agencies.  

How social science research is used by federal policymakers

There is no one single type of policy-relevant social science research. During my time in the federal government, my colleagues and I drew from qualitative and quantitative work across many disciplines.

That said, there are three broad categories of social science research that were used on a regular basis: theory or concept development, descriptive facts, and policy impacts. Together, these three types of social science research can help policymakers identify new areas of policy need or action, build the case for one type of policy design or intervention over others, estimate the impacts of a policy change, and defend a policy choice when policymakers have decided to pursue it. Let’s look at each in turn.

Theory or concept development research

New theories or concepts can be helpful for policymakers as lenses through which to view social or economic trends and developments and make sense of otherwise disparate or disconnected phenomena. In the process, social scientists can help policymakers understand new policy problems that might not have previously registered with them or new ways of organizing policy responses into a more coherent framework.

One good example of the value of social scientific frameworks for the Biden-Harris administration comes from academic work on so-called administrative burdens, or the material, time, and psychological costs that individuals encounter when attempting to access and use public services and benefits. This framework provided leaders and staff at the Office of Management and Budget with a new way of approaching their work on customer experience and paperwork review and a new way of working with federal agencies to better describe barriers in access to social programs.

Descriptive fact research

Rich empirical description is often undervalued in academic journals, but it is essential to the work of government and the policymaking process. Social scientists can document trends, prevalence, and key affected groups in ways that help policymakers understand potential policy problems and responses, and then allocate attention and target resources effectively.

Research documenting significant racial and ethnic disparities in access to Unemployment Insurance at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, helped to inform the U.S. Department of Labor’s efforts to broaden access to the UI system through new grant initiatives to state unemployment agencies.

Policy-relevant descriptive work need not be quantitative. Indeed, qualitative scholarship documenting through interviews that many food assistance beneficiaries were not aware of new flexibilities available to them through pandemic-era policy waivers helped to inform a push toward greater awareness-building of later relief initiatives.

Policy impact research

Empirical social science work also can help policymakers understand past effects or project future impacts of policy changes. This could mean, for instance, examining the roll-out of policies across states and examining impacts on relevant social and economic outcomes. This kind of analysis can then inform potential federal policy changes. When the U.S. Department of Labor was proposing an increase in the minimum wage for federal contractors to $15 an hour, for example, the department drew from research studying recent increases in the minimum wage across states and cities to shape its policy and decision-making.

Policy impact studies also can include formal program evaluations. Research on registered apprenticeships showing their impact on underserved participants’ longer-term wages and employment, for instance, have informed the U.S. Department of Labor and other executive branch decisions to scale-up funding for such training opportunities.

Another important tool from social science for assessing policy impacts are economic models that can help policymakers project the estimated impacts of different policy alternatives on relevant outcomes. For instance, the Biden-Harris administration has taken important actions to incorporate the environment and natural resources into the system of accounting for economic statistics. Yet much more remains to be done to integrate the different economic impacts of climate change on projected outcomes related to the labor market and economic productivity. This is a very relevant area of future research for social scientists.

Similarly, much more work could be done to ensure that economic models sufficiently disaggregate data between social and economic groups—for instance, by race or geography—so that policymakers can better understand the distributional impacts of proposed government actions.

Other things to know about the role research plays for federal policymaking

One question that researchers might have when considering connecting their research with policymakers is the stage at which their research should be to be helpful. The answer varies, depending on the ways that policymakers are using research. The baseline criteria for sharing research is that researchers should feel confident enough in their findings and conclusions, especially if they have not yet been published. 

Sometimes, for early-stage decisions, policymakers are looking for any relevant work on a particular issue, even unpublished work. As the policy process proceeds, especially for formal processes such as those for regulations, it becomes more important to have a broad base of published research in credible outlets, not just one study (or unpublished research).

In some cases, federal agencies need to publicly document how they use social science research, as with federal regulations where agencies are legally required to “show their work” and provide empirical citations and evidence to defend their particular policy design choices and estimated impacts. In other cases, federal agencies may rely on social science in less visible—but no less important—ways, such as when policymakers are considering alternatives early on in the process of planning initiatives. This means that even when research is not cited outright, it can still make a big difference for the government.

Where can researchers learn about federal agency priorities?

Research on how social science informs policymaking suggests that social science findings tend to have the biggest impact when they are relevant and aligned with issues and priorities on which agencies are already focused. That said, social scientists may not know what is relevant to federal agencies and policymakers at any given moment if they haven’t worked closely with federal policymakers in the past.

An added obstacle is that government officials, especially political leaders, are limited in what they can share publicly about planned activities or priorities that an agency is still deliberating. Agency staff generally do not share so-called pre-decisional information with the public.     

The good news is that the federal government regularly produces documents that clearly define the areas in which agencies are currently focused and where agencies might focus in the future. These documents are sometimes difficult to find. Below, I run through various ways interested social scientists can figure out where to find them and how to use them to identify policy-relevant research questions and topics.

Before diving into these areas, however, some things to keep in mind are how “evergreen” agency priorities are likely to be and the timeline on which receiving new research may be helpful. This is important for researchers to consider, given the time it takes to launch and complete new research projects relative to the timeline on which findings might be relevant for agency decision-makers. In some cases, policy research will be helpful for agencies regardless of the short-term priorities of agency leaders. In other cases, though, topics may be more short-lived, given the specific political priorities of one presidential administration or agency leader.

Agencies’ or officials’ public statements

The first place where researchers can find current government priorities are the public statements made by administration and agency leaders. These statements can provide good insight into the shorter-term issues and priorities that an agency is pursuing—though these topics are likely to be less evergreen than those found in other sources. They also may be more likely to be backward looking, describing work an agency has already decided to do, rather than forward looking.

Nevertheless, these public statements—such as speeches, blog posts, or news releases—can orient researchers to the broad topics, positions, and policy areas where an agency’s leadership is focused. Looking at the U.S. Department of Labor’s blog, for example, a researcher could see that the department’s leadership is focused on issues that include equitable access to Unemployment Insurance, paid family and medical leave expansion, worker misclassification, and labor-management partnerships.

Another example is a recent White House’s briefing room statement from the president about the importance of protecting career civil servants from political interference as part of the administration’s priorities for combating corruption and defending democracy.

Agencies’ evaluation and evidence-building plans

Researchers can also look at the research questions that agencies themselves have defined as being relevant to their short- and long-term priorities. As part of the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018, federal agencies provide regular plans detailing their significant evaluation activities, as well as longer-term plans for identifying priority questions, only some of which they will evaluate themselves.

The latter document—sometimes called a learning agenda—can be a very helpful resource, laying out the research questions that agencies have identified as being important and relevant. These research questions usually reflect a mix of short-term political priorities, as well as longer-term questions relevant to agencies. Researchers can find these documents on agencies’ own websites or centrally at www.evaluation.gov. Examples include:

  • Looking through the U.S. Department of Labor’s Evidence Building Plan for fiscal years 2022–2026 researchers can see that the department calls out a need for more research on how the Occupational Safety and Health Administration can build stakeholder partnerships with community, faith, and educational organizations or institutions to help the agency reach underserved or vulnerable workers.
  • In the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s learning agenda, researchers can see that agency staff have helpfully ranked research questions in order of their priority to the agency, listing some areas—such as understanding the risks to indoor air quality in HUD-funded housing or what an expanded Federal Housing Administration role in financing multifamily housing could look like—as top priorities.
  • The U.S. Department of the Treasury has issued a learning agenda specifically tied to the economic recovery and relief programs the government has launched since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. It indicates that the agency is especially interested in collaborations with external researchers who can contact the department directly for such opportunities. Areas of particular interest include the distribution of Emergency Rental Assistance funds to tenants across the United States and whether the distribution was equitable, lessons for preventing evictions nationwide, and the impact of the funds on housing stability and well-being of recipients.

Agencies’ strategic plans

To understand an agency’s longer-term priorities, another good resource is its strategic plan, which agencies are required to produce every 4 years as a result of the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993. A strategic plan is intended to be an accessible framework for agencies to define key priorities and then assign specific indicators for tracking those initiatives over time.

Researchers can use these documents to understand the issues that an agency is likely to tackle over the course of a presidential administration and the specific responsibilities that individual subagencies within an agency in order to meet the agency’s and the administration’s overall goals. Like the evaluation plans described above, these topics include a mix of top political priorities, as well as longer-term priorities that are likely to be relevant for the agencies over several years (if not longer). These plans are available on individual agency websites, as well as housed centrally by the Office of Management and Budget at www.performance.gov.

Looking through the U.S. Department of Labor’s strategic plan for fiscal years 2022–2026, we can see that the Women’s Bureau (a subagency within the department) is interested in understanding best practices for hiring and retaining women in the trades and expanding initiatives to help formerly incarcerated women reenter the workforce.

Similarly, the Office of Management and Budget’s performance team has listed some areas, such as improving the delivery of government services, as being overarching priorities for all agencies that researchers may consider when choosing research topics.

Agencies’ budget requests and congressional budget justifications

A third source of information about short- and longer-term priorities are the annual documents that agencies produce together with the White House to form the president’s budget request to Congress. These documents include detailed descriptions of what agencies and subagencies propose as new activities to meet the administration’s goals (and for which they are requesting new funding), as well as descriptions of how agencies and subagencies are using existing funding from Congress.

Together, the budget documents include valuable background information for researchers on what agencies are currently doing and their priorities for the coming years. It can be an especially helpful guide for researchers to grasp the responsibilities of specific agencies (and subagencies) and the statutes that govern those agencies so that researchers can understand which policies each agency oversees and whether policy changes might be possible, given the limits of current statutes. Researchers can find these resources on individual agency web pages, as well as on the Office of Management and Budget website for the president’s budget.

Looking through the U.S. Department of Labor’s congressional budget justification for the Wage and Hour Division in fiscal year 2024, for instance, researchers would see that one priority for this subagency is building connections with organizations that can serve as trusted intermediaries to underserved communities, including “delivering information in multiple formats and types of media tailored to the unique features of different populations, and finding ways to meet members of underserved communities outside traditional settings for [Wage and Hour Division] offices and outreach”—all topics that could be relevant for future research topics.

Agencies’ regulatory agendas

Another source of potential research questions and topics involves agencies’ regulatory development. Regulations are an important way that agencies implement statutes and carry out their work, and the regulatory process typically requires agencies to share a draft of their proposed actions with the public in what is known as a notice of proposed rulemaking. Agencies then solicit public comments and consider and address those comments in their final published regulation.

Throughout this process, social science plays a very important role since agencies are charged by the Office of Management and Budget with documenting empirically the likely impacts (including benefits and costs) of their proposal and other alternatives. Researchers have a critical role to play in improving the estimates of these impacts, including in ways that can better assess distributional impacts.

Notices of proposed rulemaking and the public comment process provide the clearest signal to researchers about areas where agencies are looking for specific feedback and input from academics. But researchers can also get a head start on the topics and issues that agencies are likely to address by using the biannual regulatory agenda, published by the Office of Management and Budget.

This document summarizes the regulations that agencies are either currently working on or are planning to work on in the coming months. The regulatory agenda is not necessarily comprehensive—agencies can always publish regulations that do not appear on the agenda or publish them sooner or later than forecasted—but it nevertheless offers a useful preview of the issues agencies are likely to tackle over a longer time period.

In the fall version of agenda, agencies also publish a regulatory plan that includes a narrative description of their regulatory priorities in addition to the individual, regulation-specific entries that appear in every agenda. There are several helpful guides available to understand how to craft effective comments, including from the Office of Management and Budget (for feedback on forms), as well as from researchers and other policy experts.

Agencies’ Requests for Information

Agencies often use formal Requests for Information to collect information from members of civil society, including researchers. These RFIs might ask for relevant studies, data, or experiences on a particular issue so that agencies can consider potential policy responses.

In implementing President Joe Biden’s historic executive order on advancing racial justice and equity, for instance, the Office of Management and Budget issued an Request for Information asking for input from the public on tools and approaches for measuring equitable administration of public benefits and services. Responses to that request then informed OMB’s work with agencies on implementing the executive order.

Requests for Information provide an opportunity for researchers to directly share their research and data with agencies and also help signal to researchers what topics agencies may be considering over the longer run. Early in the Biden-Harris administration, for instance, the U.S. Department of Labor issued a Request for Information around the hazards that extreme heat poses to workers, signaling that over the coming years the agency would be interested in pursuing both enforcement and regulatory development in this area.

Researchers can find Requests for Information as they are published in the Federal Register. To make sure that you don’t miss opportunities to submit RFI comments, you can subscribe to the Federal Register to receive email alerts when, for example, a specific agency issues a Request for Information or when an RFI mentions particular keywords.  


As part of the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to promoting pay equity, the White House recently announced that the federal government would be proposing new regulations to increase pay transparency and limit the use of salary history in setting compensation for federal contractors. The notice of proposed rulemaking advancing these proposals included a comprehensive set of references to social science research in economics and sociology—and it is clear that such research helped the administration both define the problems around pay equity and informed the design of potential policy responses. Now, researchers will have another opportunity to weigh in by providing comments on the proposed regulation.

This is just one example of the iterative ways that social science—and social scientists—have shaped important federal policies and can continue to contribute to government initiatives as they are further developed and implemented. From the protection of worker health and safety to the administration of Social Security benefits and many other policy areas, researchers can play an important role in shaping federal decisions and policymaking. The resources detailed in this guide can help researchers to craft questions and research agendas that can speak to those issues and aid policymakers as they address them.

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