National Academies Discuss Why Research Gets Lost in Translation

By Sarah D. Sparks — November 09, 2010 1 min read
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If there’s one complaint in the education research community that never loses steam (well, besides the call for more funding) it’s the frustration that great research rarely seems to translate into great policy or programs. In 2007, the National Research Council of the National Academies of Science launched a Standing Committee on Social Science Evidence for Use to try to understand why researchers have difficulty communicating their findings to policymakers. The committee is nearing the release of its final report, and I, along with the Academy of Education’s new post-doctoral fellows, last week got a sneak preview of what’s in the report.

Committee member Kenneth Prewitt, a public affairs professor at Columbia University in New York City, said academic researchers often criticize think-tank and other policy researchers without considering what can be learned from their approach. “We have a public policy industry: 300 think tanks in this town (Washington D.C.) alone, public policy schools, university policy centers.... We have an industry that wants to make public policy in this country; why then do we say we make social science and it’s not being used?” Prewett said during a discussion on the committee’s study. “If [policymakers] want social science and they’re paying for it and we think it’s not being used, we need to know why. ...If we start from what is being used, that will give us insight into [it].”

The committee is exploring how research evidence interacts with politics, policy processes, and other systems. Miron L. Straf, the deputy director of the National Academy of Sciences’ division of behavioral and social sciences and education suggested researchers and policymakers talk past each other in part because they often look for different things from ostensibly the same study.

“Establishing cause and effect is very different from determining what works,” Mr. Straf said. “We need theories of action that explain the causal mechanism behind the implementation and we need theories of implementation.”

Mr. Straf illustrated his argument with the following very concise and helpful comparison table:

The final report is due out in the next few months.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.