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Dr. Smith goes to Washington: Challenges of disseminating research to policy makers. Keith Humphreys, Ph.D. Director, VA Program Evaluation and Resource Center Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Stanford University School of Medicine. Four inter-related challenges of making a policy impact.

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Dr smith goes to washington challenges of disseminating research to policy makers l.jpg

Dr. Smith goes to Washington: Challenges of disseminating research to policy makers

Keith Humphreys, Ph.D.

Director, VA Program Evaluation and Resource Center

Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Stanford University School of Medicine


Four inter related challenges of making a policy impact l.jpg
Four inter-related challenges of making a policy impact research to policy makers

  • Inadequate theory of use

  • The is-ought gap

  • Pauline Kael problem

  • The end of “professional reform”


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Challenge #1 Inadequate theory of use research to policy makers

  • Definition of theory of use

  • The culture of 1960s program evaluation

  • An example


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Empirically refuted assumptions about knowledge use research to policy makers

  • Policy makers search for evidence

  • Policy makers read journal articles

  • Policy makers believe journal articles

  • Policy makers understand science

  • Policy is largely driven by science


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Empirical foundations of a reasonable theory of use research to policy makers

  • Policy makers are deluged with “evidence”

  • Policy makers read newspaper front pages

  • Policy makers believe scientists with whom they have a relationship

  • Many policy makers do not understand science

  • Science is one but one input in a complex policy formation process


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#2 The is-ought gap research to policy makers

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I am surpriz'd to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with a proposition that is connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, 'tis necessary that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.

--David Hume


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Example of an is-ought gap research to policy makers

  • Smoking increases risk of cancer

  • Higher cigarette taxes reduce smoking

  • Therefore government should raise taxes on cigarettes to reduce smoking and cancer


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Why do academic scientists often believe that science yields a clear policy conclusion?

  • Discomfort with accepting that our values are not facts

  • The Pauline Kael problem


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#3 The Pauline Kael problem a clear policy conclusion?

  • “I don’t understand how Nixon won the election; I don’t know anyone who voted for him”

    --Pauline Kael


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Remember who the deviant is… a clear policy conclusion?

U.S. Psych ProfsU.S. adults

2001 Median Income $70k $33k

Post-graduate degree 100% 9%

Usually vote Republican 5% 40%

Believe in God <20% 96%

Reg Religious Services <10% 40%

“I am a liberal” 37% 10%

Person of Color 7% 27%


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Consequences of the Kael Problem in U.S. Academia a clear policy conclusion?

  • Outgroup homogeneity

  • Misperception of mainstream politics

  • Echo chamber produces weak arguments

  • Ought can easily masquerade as is

  • Cynicism among philosopher-kings


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The only solution I have found for the is-ought and Pauline Kael Problems

  • Sustained engagement with individuals of diverse political views outside of academia.

  • Hazards and benefits thereof


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#4: End of “professional reform” Kael Problems

  • Senator Moynihan’s analysis of war onpoverty

  • The romance of science 1945-early 1970s

  • President Clinton’s health care reform effort

  • From evidence-driven policy to policy-driven evidence

  • The expansion of dubious scientific data


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Misleading charts have increased sharply in recent years… Kael Problems

Note: Apologies to Jon Stewart and the writers of The Daily Show


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Raising the drinking age as an example of successful policy dissemination

  • The arrival of data on teenage drinking and drink driving fatalities (1950s-1960s)

  • The emergence of a constituency that promulgated the data

  • Guided by a realistic theory of use

  • Key scientists built relationships

  • The media as a conduit for science

  • Escaping the Pauline Kael problem


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