Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Science and Social Policy

The recent kerfuffle in Washington over home-visiting programs raises some important questions about the intersection between social science and social policy. First, a quick background summary.

The President's 2010 budget included $124 million to support "families by providing additional funding for ... creating the Nurse Home Visitation program to support first-time mothers". What followed was a heated debate about home-visiting programs writ large and the Nurse Family Partnership in particular, with everyone agreeing that home-visiting is important but that no single program was universally superior. A Brookings paper took a look at this issue noting that the commotion was largely based on politics. In the end, Congress struck a balance with "a program of home visits to low-income mothers, mothers-to-be and low-income families which will produce sizeable, sustained improvements in the health, well-being, or school readiness of children or their parents".

At the heart of this debate was not the efficacy of home-visiting as an intervention but the strength of the science upon which we try to build social policy. The challenge is made even more complicated by the fact that evaluation methods are the subject of so much dispute within the research field. A timely and useful GAO report on program evaluation found that "requiring evidence from randomized studies as sole proof of effectiveness will likely exclude many potentially effective and worthwhile practices". Also, the Rockefeller Institute has recently made "Social Science in Government" available which makes the case for a broader view of evaluation that takes the complex nature of social interventions into account.

With the federal government more focused than ever on results, it is important to consider both how we measure results and how policymakers can use results to develop public policy.

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