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Adam Gamoran on Evidence-Based Policy (Two Think Minimum)

Adam Gamoran on Evidence-Based Policy (Two Think Minimum)

Bob Hahn:

Hello, and welcome to the Technology Policy Institute’s podcast Two Think Minimum. Today is May 17th, 2021, and I’m your host, Bob Hahn. I’m delighted today to be speaking with Adam Gamoran. Adam is president of the William T. Grant Foundation. Before that he was a professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Adam, welcome, and thanks for joining Two Think Minimum

Adam Gamoran:

Thanks Bob. It’s good to be with you.

Bob Hahn:

Today, we’re going to be talking about the production and use of various kinds of evidence and policymaking, and Adam, I’m hoping you brought lots of good jokes along with you so we can keep our audience awake. 

Adam Gamoran:

I’ll do my best. 

Bob Hahn:

I wanted to begin with a disclaimer. TPI received a grant from the William T. Grant Foundation that allowed us to explore ways in which the 2019 Evidence Act could be administered more effectively. Adam, can you begin by just saying a couple of words about yourself and your career? I know you were a distinguished academic and then you decided to move and do some stuff in the real world or quasi-real world running a foundation, and I’m reminded, I think of a George Bernard Shaw. “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach,” but you’ve done both. Do you want to say a couple of words and just tell our audience what you’re up to?

Adam Gamoran:

Sure, Bob. For 29 years, I was a sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. My focus was on educational inequality in school reform, and for the last 12 years at the university, I had leadership positions. First, I chaired the Sociology Department, which was a very large department at that time, the number one ranked sociology department in the nation, and then I directed the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, which is the largest university-based education research center in the country. So, after doing that for 12 years, I was ready for a new challenge. I had several ideas for what I would do next, and this was not one of them. You can’t plan on becoming a foundation president because there aren’t that many opportunities, but the opportunity came, and I was glad to seize it. It gives me the chance to shape research in an area that I’m passionate about, and that I have an expertise in, on a much broader canvas than I could before. So, I moved from being the one to ask for money to support my own research, to being the facilitator for other people trying to conduct research and now in a position to provide research funds to those who are requesting it. 

Bob Hahn:

That sounds fantastic! As an academic who’s sometimes an academic and sometimes a civil servant, I may be knocking at your door one of these days, but today I wanted to focus on some interesting research questions and academic questions with you. So, most of your work has been tied in one way or another to either the generation of useful policy insights or getting people to think about how you use evidence in policymaking, particularly for young folks, and I was wondering if you could help or start us off by defining how you think about the phrase “evidence-based policy.” 

Adam Gamoran: 

Sure. Well, first question is what do we mean by evidence? And in our perspective, we’re talking about research evidence, which is evidence derived from applying systematic methods and analysis to address a predefined question or hypothesis. So, evidence-based policy, or perhaps a better phrase, evidence-informed policy, brings research evidence into consideration. We’re not under any illusions that research evidence will drive or determine policy, because after all, policy is by many considerations, including values and priorities, as well as the wisdom of practical experience. But we’d like to see research evidence at the table when policy decisions are made and when people seek to understand the problems they face. 

Bob Hahn:

As I understand it, a large part of the efforts of your foundation are devoted towards dealing with issues for young people. Do you want to say a few words about that and how you help catalyze bringing evidence in that realm? 

Adam Gamoran:

Sure. You know, Bob, I think of evidence-based policy making as a three-order problem, and the first-order is producing credible evidence. We’ve made a lot of progress in that area. We understand much better than in the past, over the last 20 years, that the data and methods need to be aligned with the research question, and we can’t go off reaching conclusions that are not supported by the types of methods and data we use. In particular, we’re no longer prepared to listen to statements about cause and effect unless the research design supports those kinds of inferences. So, a lot of progress on the first-order question, producing credible evidence. 

But the second-order question continues to confound us, and that is getting research evidence used. A lot of folks in the evidence-based policy movement have a simplistic idea about how to get evidence used. You know, we as academics figure stuff out, then we write it up, then we throw it over the wall, and we think there’s somebody over there waiting to catch it and ready to apply it as soon as they have our pearls of wisdom. Well, it’s not so simple, and in fact, it turns out that evidence is more likely to be used when it comes in the context of relationships, relationships between producers and consumers of evidence and the intermediaries who often knit them together, and those relationships take structures that can build ongoing connections and trust to increase the use of research evidence.

And then even if we could solve that second-order problem of getting evidence used, we still face the third-order problem of the fundamental structures that require evidence use in the first place. So, we face many problems in our society. We’ve identified effective programs that respond to those problems, but even if we can get people to adapt those problems, we further need to attack the structural conditions that create the problems in the first place. 

Bob Hahn:

This is a pretty cool definition. I want to drill down on it with you, particularly on the… well let’s, let’s deal with all three parts, just to see if I can understand it as a mere mortal. The first part sort of says academics, I think have gotten their act together and are a little bit better about disentangling cause and effect. Because sometimes in the old days, I remember when I was in grad school and maybe you were in grad school, simply we would interpret correlations, something moved with something else, A moved with B as incorrectly saying A caused B or whatever. So, I think what you’re saying there is we’ve gotten a little bit more careful, or we’ve gotten better at sort of distinguishing cause and effect as opposed to just an association. Is that what you had in mind? 

Adam Gamoran: 

Yes. 

Bob Hahn:

Okay, great. On the second one, getting research used or getting this evidence used in the real world or by legislators or what have you, are there examples that you can give us where you would sort of identify those as successes? 

Adam Gamoran: 

Sure. Well, a fantastic example comes out of a paper just published by Max Crowley and colleagues in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, an evaluation of something called the Research to Policy Collaboration, and what Crowley and his team have done is create structured relationships between legislative staff, Congressional staff members, Crowley himself as a former Congressional staffer, and researchers around issues of child maltreatment and child development, and they randomized legislative staff to the treatment, and they randomized researchers to the treatment. And what they found is those who were participating in these structured relationships, the Research to Policy Collaboration, were much more likely to refer to evidence in legislative deliberations and legislative write-ups, and the researchers who were randomized to the collaboration became more comfortable with interacting with policymakers and had greater confidence about their ability to get their research findings used. So, it was a double win and clearly shows that it is possible to create a structure and a system where relationships between researchers and policy makers can thrive, and in those systems, research evidence has more of a chance to get on the table. 

Bob Hahn:

Let me ask you about this and this isn’t a study, but this is just a comment based on my own experience. So, I worked at AEI and Brookings for a while. They are two think tanks, as you know, in Washington. I’m also thinking of institutions in government that may have served similar roles and in some cases do serve similar roles like the Congressional Research Service and formerly the Office of Technology Assessment. So, in my view, a lot of what these places do is take the kind of evidence that you were talking about, that might be an [inaudible] journal that legislators or legislative staff might not read and translate it into usable forms that maybe Hill staffers can digest and put into policy in one way, shape or form. Is it your view that one, we need institutions like the ones I just mentioned, and they serve a potential useful role sort of mediating the findings of academia and helping them translate them into policy? 

Adam Gamoran:

Well, we do need those sorts of institutions because making research timely, accessible, and relevant is important, but it’s not enough. That’s one thing we’ve learned. Being able to communicate your findings clearly to an audience that’s interested is not enough to get the evidence used. It turns out that building some kind of relationship so that the researcher is responsive to the interests and concerns of the policymaker is another important ingredient. 

Bob Hahn:

Right. We as researchers, if we happen to wake up and be interested in getting our findings used in the real world, you need to think about not just generating a new idea or a better mouse trap, but the sort of insights you offered a couple of minutes ago about how you actually get this stuff used, how you get staffers to listen to it, and part of that is developing relationships. Can you help me on the third leg of the stool? You mentioned something about structures and that being important for evidence. Can you expand on that a little bit?

Adam Gamoran:

Sure. So, the William T. Grant Foundation supports research to improve the use of evidence and policy and also to reduce inequality in youth outcomes. So, problems of inequality can be addressed by effective programs that successfully advanced the chances of the young people who are targeted by them, but those programs need to exist because we live in a discriminatory, oppressive, racist society that creates the need for those programs in the first place, and if we could tack those structures at their roots, then we’d be better positioned for the program effects to actually make a difference in the long run. 

Bob Hahn:

Okay. So let me see if I understand this because you come from sort of a sociological bent and I come from an economics type bent. So, when I think about this, what you’re saying a little bit, I think about the work of people like Doug North, who got a Nobel prize, who talked about institutions matter a lot for how society evolves, for things like people’s wellbeing and economic growth and so forth. Are you saying that we need to sort of rethink the institutions that yield certain outcomes and maybe look at ways to redesign certain of those institutions? 

Adam Gamoran:

Sure, we do. You know, but a lot of the inequality generating policies that we have can be reversed even, you know, through our legal system, even in the absence of institutional change. So, we have all kinds of incentives in our tax system that help the wealthy advance and leave the poor farther and farther behind. Those kinds of policies can be reversed. We have racially discriminatory practices that have been continued for decades through our mortgage system, through our lending system, through school assignment policies. These can all be reversed. So, if that’s what you mean by institutional change, then yes, I’m on the same page. 

Bob Hahn:

Not sure what I mean. I was asking you as the guru to help me answer that one. Let me, let me ask you since we’re on a timely topic, inequality, which you’ve given a lot of thought to, the Biden administration has made steps in the direction of trying to address issues of inequality. It’s issued a lot of memos and executive orders related to reducing racism and promoting equity. Do you think any of this is going to make a difference, and why or why not? 

Adam Gamoran:

Absolutely. President Biden’s executive order has made a difference. You know, some of the worst excesses of the Trump administration occurred towards the very end. For example, an executive order that banned anti-racist education on the part of government agencies, government contractors, and even government grantees, that most universities felt they were prohibited from continuing their diversity and anti-racist training. Well, President Biden reversed that on day one of his administration with his executive order on racial equity, and moreover, the order calls for federal agencies to prioritize equity in their planning, their budgeting, and their decision-making. So, that’s going to make a difference in the short term. Now in the long-term, a lot more has to happen than an executive order, but President Biden started us off in the right direction on his first day in office. 

Bob Hahn:

So, let’s say that you were President Biden’s special assistant for implementing this stuff. I need you to help me cause I’m a sort of lowly economist here. What do you mean here by promoting equity? Because when economists think about equity, they sometimes provide different kinds of definitions. Like certain groups benefit from a policy and certain groups incur the costs, or certain groups may do better than other groups like the rich or the poor, or the black or the white, or the pink or the green. How do you, you know, if you were charged with helping him implement this, how would you do this concretely? 

Adam Gamoran:

Yeah. Well, that’s a great question. First of all, we can think about inequality in two ways. We can think about it as the overall distribution of some valued good, like income or education, or we can think about it as group differences, like the black, white wealth gap. So, on the first, many have argued that some degree of inequality is required to motivate performance. Well, that may be true, but what we know is that we don’t need as much inequality as we have now because we used to have a lot less of it, and we had a very productive economy. So, we could have less inequality in the sense of overall distribution. 

When it comes to group differences, there’s no moral, social, or economic reason to justify group differences. So, those should be eliminated. First, what are the steps we can take? You know, in the United States, we have a lot of opportunity hoarding, keeping benefits for those who are already advantaged instead of extending them to the disadvantaged. Opportunity hoarding policies, that for example, unlike most countries, we have no federally mandated paid parental leave. So, if you’re in a wealthy family, you can take time off because you can have only one earner at a time, but if you’re in a less wealthy family, you can’t afford to do that. Another example, we tax capital gains and about half the rate that as ordinary income. Well, you’ll only get capital gains if you’re rich enough to have money to invest. So, those who are poor don’t get that benefit. We have all sorts of tax credits that you get, but if you’re too poor to pay taxes, you don’t get those benefits. So, we can work, and President Biden has already worked, to already put in place some steps to change that. 

Bob Hahn:

So, I have a personal interest in education, and I helped start a school some time ago. So, I wanted to ask you a little bit about your take on the charter school movement. Because sometimes charter schools or vouchers, as Milton Friedman suggested many years ago, are viewed as a way of potentially helping the poor or disaffected take advantage of some opportunities by being able to choose the school that they or their child goes to. I was wondering what your take on the evidence was on whether they work and whether you think it’s a good idea. And if you think it’s a good idea, how should they be rolled at or encouraged?

Adam Gamoran:

Well, you’ve asked two very different questions, Bob. The question about vouchers and the question about charter schools have very different answers. 

Bob Hahn:

True. 

Adam Gamoran:

So, the recent research on vouchers is not encouraging. We’ve had negative effects of vouchers for private schools in DC, in Indiana, in Louisiana, and it’s not looking like a very promising route to advance the education of anybody, including those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. 

Charter schools is a different story. For a long time, the answer to the question about effects of charter schools on achievement was variability. Some charter schools produce higher achievement than the traditional public schools they drew from. Some produced less achievement, but over the last five years, evidence is accumulating that a certain type of charter school, some call it “no excuses school.” I call it schools that follow an effective schools model. These schools are producing higher achievement for low income minority students than the traditional public schools from which those students are drawn. Not only are they producing higher achievement, but it appears that their effects may be long lasting. The early evidence suggests that they may have benefits for high school completion and college enrollment, and soon we’ll know about effects on college graduation and even labor market outcomes. These are from carefully controlled studies, either based on lotteries or based on rigorous quasi-experimental designs that allow us to have some confidence in the causal attribution of these effects.

Bob Hahn:

So, can you tell us a little bit more about what you mean by no excuses here, or whatever acronym that you used? 

Adam Gamoran:

Yeah, so, you know, back in the seventies, there was something called the effective schools movement, and the effective school movement said that schools that have good discipline and order, that monitor students’ progress frequently, that have a relentless focus on classroom instruction, these are the kinds of schools that help urban low-income minority students succeed. Most famously, Ron Edmonds was a Harvard scholar who emphasized this view, and today we have these so-called no excuses schools like the KIPP Academies that follow the same principles, and they have been shown to be successful… Success Academy in New York City. Others that have had a rigorous evaluations are showing these effects, but consistently. 

Bob Hahn:

So, I have a question or a couple of questions about disadvantaged youth. Is there any truth to the saying that it’s better to be investing in young folks when they’re younger as opposed to when they’re older?

Adam Gamoran:

It is certainly a good idea to invest in kids when they’re young, we can be confident of that. What I’m most interested now I would say is in the complementarity of effects because in many studies, early investments have effects that fade out over time. There’s some high profile studies where the effects don’t appear until decades later. And those are very important, but in other cases, the effects fade over time and it seems like it may require continued investment. So, high quality preschool followed by a better resource school may get you even more bang for the buck. I certainly don’t agree with the argument that says it’s not worthwhile to invest in kids as they go through elementary school, reach adolescence and through high school and transition to the workforce. Those investments are also worthwhile. First of all, kids who are struggling at those ages, we have a responsibility to support them, to help them, and second of all, those investments also have long-term payouts. 

I can give you some examples, Bob, you know, our foundation has supported some research that has yielded high profile findings for programs that are actually reducing inequality in youth outcomes. One example is summer youth employment opportunities in Boston. We had a study by Alicia Modestino, an economist at Northeastern University, showing that investments in summer youth employment payoff for less crime and more educational attainment, and she’s continuing that work in Boston. We supported the study of lead hazard reduction. Counties that took federal money to reduce lead in their communities not only deal did better health outcomes, but also better test scores for kids in those communities. We’ve supported research that shown that has shown that when community members bring lawsuits against schools in cases of homophobic bullying, there’ve been two sorts of outcomes. When the plaintiffs win the lawsuit, homophobic bullying in those schools declined, and when the plaintiffs lose the lawsuits, homophobic bullying has actually increased, and we’ve supported some studies with negative findings, and you know, research that shows null effects or negative effects can also be informative. So, for example online credit recovery programs in one study we support does not confer the same benefit for labor market outcomes as kids who complete high school by taking classes in school. So, those are some examples of programs that do reduce inequality, the [inaudible], and that pertained to older kids, not just infants in preschool. 

Bob Hahn:

Let me ask you about that online study, especially in light of what everyone’s experiencing now with COVID. Are you concerned about generally children falling behind because of COVID behind what they would otherwise and in particular, is there a bias towards disadvantaged kids falling even further behind?

Adam Gamoran:

Well, I’m deeply concerned, Bob, and I want to stress two points. And the first point is the one that you have focused on, which is how the pandemic has exposed, in even sharper relief, the deep cleavages we have in our society between advantaged and disadvantaged population, between racial majority and racial minority children, and these differences have been exacerbated by the pandemic. I don’t think there’s any doubt about it, but the second point is that we’re not just talking about test scores here, because there are social and emotional damage that has been done to young people, and I don’t think we know the scope of that yet, but it’s impossible not to anticipate that such damage has occurred, and I think it’s going to be a long time before we can respond to those challenges. All of the experience we’ve had with online teaching and learning, of course, there are some kids who thrive, but many more who don’t.

And so, this online credit recovery case, or the case of virtual charter schools, it’s common to obtain negative findings in such studies, and now we have a whole nation that’s gone virtual, and this is not to bash teachers, by the way. You know, if you’ve, if you’ve been close to education over the past 15 months, you’ve seen how desperately hard so many teachers are working to hold it together under impossible conditions, but it is a consequence of the situation we’re in and the paltry response we’ve had to educating all children in this terrible environment. 

Bob Hahn:

So, some economists, I’m not an expert on this, but some economists have said that the public health community may have been too focused on just COVID because there are a lot of these other negative effects, you know, we’ve touched on one with education, but you know, there, there are a whole bunch of other effects on adults and children. Do you think that should, other things equal, tilt the scales towards opening more quickly, or a tough question, or you haven’t thought about it?

Adam Gamoran:

I’ve certainly thought about it. I don’t think you can be living in this year without thinking about that question, and I think that I can certainly say that those considerations, the negative side of having schools close ought to be given very substantial consideration. I think the losses are greater than we have yet realized not only in test scores, but especially in trauma and its long-term consequences in social, emotional conditions and socialization. All of that should be weighed carefully, and I certainly hope that all schools will be fully open in Fall 2021. 

Bob Hahn:

Gotcha. So, let me return to the… you presented a lot of cool ideas about what was working and a couple of things that weren’t working. Do people either at your foundation or out there in academia or somewhere, try to rank these in a way that you can get maximum bang for your buck in terms of if you want to invest in children or particular groups of children to either reduce inequality or help them with opportunity?

Adam Gamoran:

Yeah. We have a fantastic example of that, Bob. We were amongst six private supporters, along with the federal government, of the National Academy study: A Roadmap to Reducing Childhood Poverty, and that weighed a variety of responses to its charge, which was to find a way to recommend ways to cut childhood poverty in half within 10 years, and they ended up identifying four packages of programs, not single programs, but packages of programs that would do the job. And in fact, many elements of those packages have been adopted in the American Rescue Plan for one year, so far. Some one, some two years, hopefully there’ll be extended. So yeah, it is certainly possible to weigh different programs against one another and talk about how different programs would work. 

Bob Hahn:

So let me, let me turn, we’ve been talking a lot about kids and things like that. We started with evidence, but let me go back to evidence, and I know you testified before the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking because I happened to be there, and you did a great job, but I wanted to ask you, what do you think the federal government should be doing now in this area? Where’s the low hanging fruit, and what should it be doing internally to change the structures or the institutions or what have you to generate better evidence and maybe get it used? 

Adam Gamoran:

Yeah. So, I think the Commissioner on Evidence-Based Policymaking had a strong set of recommendations. The Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act, which enacted many of those recommendations, was well conceived and well-positioned, and there’s more coming out of the commission that I think needs to be done. I think the federal government could do a much better job of ensuring that the data that it already collects are used to inform the government on smart policy, the government could pass a National Secure Data Systems Act, which is something that’s under consideration and was a recommendation of the commission, which would create a system to link government data sets to be used by researchers, both inside and outside of government.

I think we can see more partnerships between policy offices and research offices in government so that there would be greater use of the research findings that our own government offices are producing and partnerships that would involve researchers out of government, and this pertains not only to the federal, but also to state and local governments as well. So, these kinds of partnerships, as I was describing before, build trust and create opportunities for collaboration, as in the research, the policy collaboration model and create conditions where evidence gets used. I think the federal government could require that states that create data systems using federal dollars, make those data systems available for research and analysis on a de-identified basis, and that’s not something that’s happened in the past. And so as someone who’s used national data and been greatly frustrated by the inability to link those data to state administrative data, I think that’s a direction we should go.

So, there’s a lot the federal government could do to further implement the recommendations of the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking and advance the prospects for evidence use. I think President Biden’s Memorandum on Scientific Integrity, which he issued on the sixth day of his administration also stakes out a good beginning for the Biden administration. Stating that evidence has made a comeback, we are going to support the production and use of evidence in our decision making. We’re going to be guided by science, and I think it was important for the Biden administration to take that stand in light of what had happened in the last year of the Trump administration. You know, Bob in August of 2019, I wrote an essay for Science that explained that even in the Trump administration, all the hostility to science, we had seen, there were still many examples of scientific evidence helping to guide government policies. Well, that essay did not age well as we entered into the pandemic and we saw the most horrific rejection of science, at least of my lifetime, that we’ve seen from the federal government. I think the Biden administration took an important stand to confront that and turn it around immediately, and hopefully that will translate into real actions such as those I’ve described.

Bob Hahn:

Let me press you on the science thing a little bit, but through a different lens. And I may not have this perfectly right or correct, but I think President Biden, or candidate Biden said, “We’re going to let science dictate things,” and my take on this is that science can provide you with some evidence, but ultimately somebody has got to make a value judgment about whether you close the schools, this, that, or the other thing. Where do you come from on this? 

Adam Gamoran:

Yeah, I completely agree with that stance, Bob, and it is, like I said at the beginning, evidence-based policy should better be labeled evidence-informed policy because policy is never going to be driven or rely solely on evidence. Research evidence needs to be among the consideration, but there are always going to be value judgments of priorities and the wisdom of experience, and you know, information coming from many different sources, many kinds of priorities that will be part of the calculation. The problem is though that sometimes evidence is entirely disregarded, or sometimes the evidence is cherry picked after the decision has been made, and we are seeking certain stances where evidence is used both in a conceptual way to help frame the problem and identify possible solutions, and instrumentally, to identify the costs and benefits to one decision over another decision. 

Bob Hahn:

So, let me ask you some academics and others have suggested putting in a certain fraction of the budget and allocating that to evaluation on big programs or all programs, like maybe 1% or half a percent, we can pick the number. What do you think of that idea, and is there any chance of politicians taking that seriously? The idea being that if we know whether a program is working as we do it or after the fact, we can do better going down the line. 

Adam Gamoran:

Yeah. Generally speaking, I think that’s a good idea. We have to acknowledge some efforts lend themselves to evaluation better than others, but for those that do, we should be evaluating them. I always talk about the intersection of two considerations. One is importance. So, how important is this effort? And two is feasibility. How feasible is it to evaluate? When those two intersect, we should absolutely devote part of the budget to evaluation, and it’s not just so that we can kill programs that don’t have the effects we’re looking for at the beginning. It’s so we can improve programs. It’s so we can fine tune them or turn them around or implement them in different ways so that they’ll have the desired effect.

Bob Hahn:

So let me ask you, I agree with what you just said. Let me ask you, if you were to give the government Trump, Biden, whoever, a grade on how well it’s using evidence in decision-making, what would that be great be and why? I know you’re a tough grader because you were an academic.

Adam Gamoran:

My grade would be incomplete, and the reason it’s incomplete is because they don’t do it very well, but there’s more to learn. You know, Ron Haskins wrote a book with his collaborator Greg Margolis called Show Me the Evidence: Obama’s Fight for Rigor and Relevance in Social Policy, and he focused on the tiered evidence programs, programs where the program got more money if it had better evidence to support it. Well, that effort, even the effort to bring evidence in the Obama administration had some ups and downs, some bumps in the road. 

And then we get to the Trump administration, where as I’ve said, overt hostility to evidence and to science. Many steps taken dispersing of government scientists to all parts of the country so they would quit. Disbanding government panels, not appointing people to government panels. The one I used to serve on, the National Board for Education Sciences, no appointments until very near the end, and then in the last month, his administration appointing a bunch of people who have no expertise on the topic. All sorts of steps taken in the Trump administration to counter the value and valuation of scientific evidence in government decision-making, and yet President Trump signed the Foundation for Evidence Based Policymaking Act. President Trump signed the Family First Prevention Services Act, many other examples of opportunities where evidence did enter into the Trump administration. Until sadly, tragically, the last year, when evidence… when we needed to have science and evidence most of all in battling the pandemic, we just got destroyed, but President Biden, on his sixth day in office, signed a memorandum on scientific integrity. So, you know, we’re working on it, but it’s certainly rated incomplete. 

Bob Hahn:

So, do you think, ignoring presidents for a moment and talking about the Senate and the house, Congress, do you think there’s an opportunity to sell some of the ideas that you’ve played a critical role in as an academic and now a foundation leader, sell what you call evidence informed policy on the hill? Because my take on this, let me tell you my bias is that it’s pretty hard to object to these ideas. Who could be opposed to having a little better evidence when you’re thinking about policy? On the other hand, it’s probably not uppermost in a legislator’s mind if he or she wants to get reelected. What’s your take on moving the ball forward here in terms of Congress? 

Adam Gamoran:

Well, every elected official starts with the first priority of getting reelected. So, if a person’s naïve, one doesn’t take that into account, but with that in mind, legislators also want to make a positive difference for their districts, for their states, and for their country. And so many legislators, in my experience, from both sides of the aisle, are interested in the evidence. That’s why Congress funded half of the National Academy’s committee on a Roadmap to Reducing Child Poverty. That’s why it’s funding a new study on reducing intergenerational poverty. That’s why, you know, the federal government is the biggest source of funding for scientific research. There are many champions of scientific research in Congress. So, I think there is sincere interest on the part of legislators in the evidence on the issues that they’re passionate about. Again, it’s not going to be determinative, but it will be informative. 

Bob Hahn:

So, you’ve been working in this area for a long time. How has it changed since you got into it?

Adam Gamoran:

The first thing to say is that the quality of evidence has improved. So, in my own area of research, education, I think we can have more confidence in the research findings today than we could 20 years ago or 38 years ago, when I first got into business, and the quality of evidence has improved. The use of evidence has made much less progress. On the whole, the idea of evidence-based policy remains naive. Most people still have the idea that there’s a linear process where you make a hypothesis, you test that hypothesis, if the program is effective, everybody adopts the program. That reminds of one time, a long time ago, when I was fishing. I’m not much of a fisherman, but I used to have some friends who were fisherman. And we were out in the lake in a little rowboat, and everybody was using different baits, and one guy who was using minnows got out nibble on his line. So, he says, “Switch to minnows,” and everybody switched to minnows. Okay, well, we didn’t catch a lot of fish that day, and you know, if you have some program X that is effective in a rigorous study, that doesn’t mean everybody’s going to switch to program X, and if they do, it’s not all going to have the same consequences as it did in the original trial. So, it’s just not that simple, but we’re learning much more. The science of knowledge utilization has improved, and we’re learning lessons that can be put into place, and in the long run, I think we will see policy making more informed by science than it has been in the past. 

Bob Hahn,

So, let me ask you, foundations are particularly influential in cutting edge issues like the William T. Grant Foundation. In your view, are they making better use of evidence? So, you know, at the risk of generalizing a little bit or at least some of them, and are they making better use of the kinds of techniques that you were talking about during our discussion? 

Adam Gamoran:

So, a lot of foundations start with the answer, and they want to fund work that drives towards the answer that they’ve already decided on. The William T. Grant foundation isn’t does not work like that. We start with questions, and we think the research community will be better at coming up with answers to the questions than we could be sitting around our little conference room. So, for foundations that support research as we do, and that aim to improve the way evidence from research is used in decision-making, I think there are opportunities to put into practice the lessons that I’ve expressed. Not all foundations operate in that way, but for those that do, I think there are real opportunities. 

Bob Hahn:

We’ve been talking with Adam Gamoran, President of the William T. Grant Foundation. Adam, thanks for joining Two Think Minimum.

Adam Gamoran:

It was my pleasure. 

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