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GSDM Professor Awarded Prestigious Grant to Research Optimal Parental Support Policies

Dr. Jennifer Heissel Image

Jennifer Heissel, assistant professor of manpower and economics in the Graduate School of Defense Management, was awarded a prestigious grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Evidence for Action program to pursue research into optimal DOD parental support policies.

A Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) faculty member has been awarded a prestigious research grant that has the potential to shape the health and well-being of military families - and the American public - for generations to come.

Dr. Jennifer Heissel, assistant professor of manpower and economics in the Graduate School of Defense Management (GSDM), was bestowed a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Evidence for Action (E4A) grant to pursue research over the next three years into the effects of DOD parental support policies for service members.

Drawing on titanic collections of DOD data, Heissel will take a deep dive into how different policies - maternity and paternity leave as well as subsidized child care - relate to parents’ health in the active duty population.

“We’re just trying to find causal ‘X leads to Y’ evidence to demonstrate how we can improve health in the military,” Heissel said. “For example, when you give parents more leave, are they able to go to doctors’ appointments to keep their own health up? Or are they better able to support their spouse who is back at home?”

The different military branches have, at different times, had different parental support policies in place. Over the years, they’ve collected massive amounts of data on service members: physical fitness tests, medical records, substance abuse trends, mental health screenings, vitals at physicals and health-related duty limitations.

The E4A grant will enable Heissel and her team to utilize this wealth of information, anonymously aggregated, to conduct statistical analysis and evaluate a range of policies - six versus 12 versus 18 weeks of maternity leave, for example - with a higher degree of fidelity than is possible outside the DOD.

“You can’t really do these policy evaluations in the civilian world in the United States; rarely do you have that kind of data access,” Heissel noted. “For instance, we can see if rates of maternal depression change across those different [military] policy regimes, or we can see if rates of other health outcomes changed along those same time frames at precisely the times when these new policies were coming into play.”

The DOD recognizes the importance of honing such policy evaluations: the well-being of military families begets a stronger force, allowing service members to be all they can be.

In 2015, the Navy and Marine Corps upped maternity leave to 18 weeks; the next year, then-Secretary of Defense Ash Carter changed paid maternity leave across the DOD to 12 weeks as part of his ‘Force of the Future’ initiative. More paid time for some services, but a reduction from the change the DON had made just a year prior. 

Carter’s goals were clear. “We want our people to be able to balance two of the most solemn commitments they can ever make: a commitment to serve their country and a commitment to start and support a family,” he said at the time. 

More paid time off might be advantageous for service members in some ways, but not so in others. More so, what are the true impacts of these policy changes, and how can leaders make truly data-driven, evidentiary policy choices between tradeoffs? 

These are some of the questions Heissel hopes to begin developing answers to. And there is much overlap between the DOD’s drive to support parents’ health and the mission of E4A.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, founded in 1968, is the largest philanthropic institution in the U.S. devoted to the betterment of health and health care. E4A is a signature grant program to fund innovative, multi-disciplinary research fostering the foundation’s vision of a Culture of Health across the nation.

Awarding Heissel the $273,058 grant is a potential win for E4A as well: her findings will not be limited to the DOD. Service members are human beings and similar patterns hold for the civilian population, she noted.

“[E4A] really cares and is interested in ways that we can improve health outcomes in the United States,” Heissel said. “If providing maternity or paternity leave or child care access is demonstrated to improve health outcomes, then that kind of gives you evidence useful to policymakers.”

Heissel is a relatively new faculty member, having joined the NPS community in 2017, and receiving the E4A grant funding provides the opportunity to pursue the primary reason she came here in the first place.

“What sort of research can I do the help the military, help families? I don’t think I could have jumped into this without [the grant],” she said. “I’ve always been interested in this sort of family environment: how does a baby in the home affect the whole family? I wanted to translate this into the military family, how military family policies affect not just the baby but also the health of the whole family unit.”

Heissel is quick to point out, however, that she isn’t going it alone.

Her crack research team, comprised of NPS graduate student Marine Corps Cpt. Mike Healey and Northwestern University graduate student Olivia Healy, provides invaluable assistance slogging through the behemothic amounts of data. NPS faculty have a definitive role as well.

“It was my fantastic colleague Yu-Chu [Shen, GSDM associate dean of research], who originally recommended that I apply to the grant,” Heissel said. “I have felt very supported.”

“This grant reflects well on what we are able to do at NPS; we have top quality researchers doing interesting and important work,” she added. “it’s nice to be recognized by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for the unique contributions that we can have towards policy improvement and health.”

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