by Rosemary Avery

originally appeared in the Human Ecology Magazine, Vol 41,  Number 2, Fall 2013

In my teaching and advising roles, I often challenge students to ponder the ubiquitous reach of public policy in their lives. Regulation influences every minute of their day: the enjoyment of a morning cup of coffee, their commute to campus, the safety of the food and products they consume, their built environments, and of course their bank accounts.  

The fact that public policy touches almost every aspect of our lives highlights the importance of understanding its impact on society through empirical investigation. In the Department of Policy Analysis and Management (PAM), our social scientists tackle innumerable problems rooted in complex social, economic, and environmental systems. Their rigorous analysis of the impacts of health, social, and regulatory policy on individuals and families translates into recommendations to guide not only federal and state policies but also industry solutions. 

For instance, coronary heart disease is a leading cause of death in the United States, with high levels of LDL-cholesterol known to be a major contributor. Working with faculty in PAM and Cornell’s Department of Communication, I helped lead an investigation of how direct-to-consumer advertising affects individual health decisions. We found that exposure to advertising for statins (cholesterol-lowering drugs) increased one’s likelihood of getting screened for high cholesterol and being prescribed statin medication, but only among people at low risk of a future cardiac event, not those at higher risk. The study illustrates the need for research to inform public policy and, in this case, the prescribing behavior of physicians. Similar studies are underway in the department to understand public health behaviors related to pharmaceutical marketing, smoking cessation, and weight-loss programs. 

Emanating from the college’s land-grant mission, PAM’s overarching focus is to connect research to topics of significant public concern and to prepare students to make a difference in both public and private policymaking. To better inform the public about policy ramifications, PAM faculty members are widely sought after as experts by the U.S. Congress, national think tanks, and the news media to share their expertise on health, social, and regulatory policy. In the past year alone, they’ve been featured in the news media discussing Social Security and federal disability insurance reform, demographic changes behind income and health disparities, education policy, U.S. Postal Service budget woes, and other pertinent issues.  

At the same time, they are engaging students in every aspect of their research. We see the rewards pay off in our strong alumni network made up of former students who are now leaders in health care, law, policy, government, and higher education.  

Adding to PAM faculty strengths are two highly regarded professional master’s programs: the Sloan Program in Health Administration within PAM and the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs (CIPA) under college leadership. The combined strengths of these programs make the college a natural hub for Cornell’s expanding public policy focus. In order to support deeper connections between public policy research and practice at the university, faculty members in PAM are working with the CIPA program to explore the possible development of new master’s-level teaching programs. This exciting new direction has great potential to bring together experts across Cornell to collaborate in expanding our role in training future leaders in the public realm.  

Rosemary Avery is a Weiss Presidential Fellow and Chairperson of the Department of Policy Analysis and Management.