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May-June 2011

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Evidence and Impact: How Scholarship Can Improve Policy and Practice

Policy makers and policy researchers tend to be mutually disrespectful. Politicians often utter the word “academic” with a pejorative inflection; academics employ similar tones when using the word “political.” Harry Truman reputedly longed to find a one-armed economist who would not say “on the other hand.” And an economist once suggested that politicians use data as a drunk uses a lamppost — for support, not illumination.

Beneath the jokes lies a serious issue. Researchers, policy makers, and practitioners share a sincere interest in improving the human condition. Academics may be tempted to fault irrationality, ideology, or ignorance for the failure of research to inform policy and practice more powerfully, but policy makers and practitioners want academics to tell them “what works” in order to find a practice or method that will reliably yield desirable results. And every self-respecting researcher wants to make important contributions. Nobody is happy when the collection and analysis of empirical data on policy and practice is not respected, accessible, and put to good use.

The heart of the issue lies in unrealistic expectations and aspirations, combined with a failure to take full advantage of what is possible. The research community, rightly adhering to scientific standards for causal inference, has taught policy makers to respect only the “gold standard” — findings based on experimental or quasi-experimental research, ideally employing random assignment to treatment and control groups.

Social scientists have striven mightily to design research efforts that meet those highest scientific standards. But the literature is filled with inconclusive, unsatisfying results or, at best, results demonstrating very modest, even if statistically significant, effects. It is little wonder policy makers view social science research with a jaundiced eye.

Paul Lingenfelter (plingenfelter@sheeo.org) is president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers association.

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