Beyond the Ivory Tower: A Research Funder Aims for More Traction on Public Policy

 photo:  mozakim/shutterstock

photo:  mozakim/shutterstock

We often talk about the “levers” philanthropy pulls—or tries to—to make an outsized impact with a modest outlay. Backing research and advocacy on public policy is among the most powerful of those levers. Plenty of funders work to influence politically charged issues where they can. Backing social science research has been a consistent way to do that. In fact, this is among the very oldest strategies of philanthropy: One of America's first foundations, the Russell Sage Foundation, was established in 1907 to improve "social and living conditions" in the U.S., in large part through "research, publication, education."

The William T. Grant Foundation has also long put research front-and-center in its mission to improve the lives of young people. Through the years (it dates back to 1936), Grant has supported work by eminent names like George Vaillant, Benjamin Spock, Jane Goodall and Robert Putnam, among others. In 2013, its current president Adam Gamoran, a noted sociologist, brought to Grant a specific focus on inequality and its impact on American youth.

Along with other early philanthropic ventures focused on research—not only Russell Sage, but also the Twentieth Century Fund, and the Brookings Institution—the William T. Grant Foundation was founded in an era when American elites had highs hopes that the still-young field of social science could serve as an impartial guide for government policy. Those hopes haven't disappeared by any stretch, but they've been tempered by decades of fierce ideological warfare, and more recently, a disturbing turn toward a tribal, "post-truth" political culture. Too often, having the best evidence on your side counts for little in polarized fights over public policy. 

That's certainly true on issues of inequality. This is intensely contested terrain right now, as the progressive left wrestles the populist right for control of the narrative. And lately, the Grant Foundation has concerned itself with a discouraging question: Given all the research being done on unequal social outcomes, why wasn’t it impacting policy? As Gamoran told us for an overview of Grant’s work in 2015, “The quality of research is high enough [in the social sector] that it's worth paying attention to, and yet when decisions are made, the evidence is rarely consulted.”

This is where things get meta. In 2016, as we reported, Grant shifted its focus to grantees who were studying research itself: how to improve it, how it’s incentivized, and most importantly, how to “increase routine and beneficial uses of research in deliberations and decisions that affect young people.” In other words, getting social research out of the ivory tower and into actual policy and practice.

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This spring, the Grant Foundation announced two new grant programs drawing on its conclusions from that “meta” dive. Both its Institutional Challenge Grant and its Rapid Response Research grants support efforts to better relate research to action on issues facing young people. The former focuses on a single institution’s relationship with a public agency or nonprofit, while the latter funds research responses to urgent needs. As Gamoran told me recently, “Both [programs] have a bias toward action, toward improving society and improving conditions for young people.”

For a long time, Gamoran said, the rough consensus about why policymakers were essentially ignoring research evidence was that the quality of the research itself was poor. But as Grant and its partners looked into the problem, they found that the level of rigor in a piece of research didn’t really affect whether decision-makers would consult it. “We found many examples of good research being ignored, and bad research being used,” Gamoran said. 

What mattered more were relationships characterized by trust. If the producers and consumers of research know each other and have faith in the other party’s good intentions, studies get consulted. That also means there’s no real tradeoff between rigor and relevance, as some have suspected. Rigorous research will be used if the right relationships are in place. 

On the face of it, that seems like common sense. But in academia, Gamoran said, “researchers have little incentive to serve the public good,” regardless of their good intentions. Rewards for success in academic research can be insular, and that means “researchers come up with agendas without fully considering the needs of the actors for whom it makes an impact.”

The foundation’s Institutional Challenge Grants address those concerns by reorienting the incentive structure within universities. Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology was the first recipient, receiving $650,000. It’ll work with Cornell Cooperative Extension, a 501(c)(3) organization that already exists to disseminate academic research across New York State. Specifically, the grant will build collaborative research relationships between the college and Cornell Cooperative Extension-Tompkins County to tackle opioid abuse and child maltreatment in rural upstate New York communities. 

The grant extends over three years, and the College of Human Ecology will be able to apply for a two-year continuation grant after that period elapses. In the meantime, the foundation anticipates rolling out similar grants to other universities over the next four years. It’s not surprising that Cornell won the grant—it had already taken meaningful steps to engage local public agencies and nonprofits. Other institutions may have to start from scratch. 

The new Rapid Response Research grants, as you might expect, work on a quicker timetable. “Rapid” isn’t the first word that comes to mind when people think about research—or foundation grants, for that matter. But this funding responds to urgent problems that have arisen out of the political climate, impacting vulnerable youth. 

It’s modeled after a lot of the other rapid response funding that poured forth from progressive funders during Trump’s first year in office. But unlike most of those programs, these grants don’t fund direct services. They don’t fund original research, either. Instead, they synthesize existing research and apply it to a concrete context, utilizing partnerships between a research team and an entity on the ground. The work is meant to happen quickly—from six to eight weeks—and the partners need to hammer out an engagement plan to target decision makers. 

The first six rapid response grants support partnerships that very much fit the progressive mold. They include research on policy options to aid young immigrants, make Texas schools safer for LGBTQ youth, improve outcomes for Muslim refugee students, and support relief efforts for youth in Puerto Rico. One grant also looks at the opioid crisis among adolescents in certain Ohio communities.

There’s an undeniable political element to all of this, and Gamoran didn’t hesitate to point to “a hunger in the previous [federal] administration for policy responses to inequality that is not a priority for the current administration.” Nevertheless, Washington, D.C., still depends on research in a lot of ways, and “at the state and local level, there’s just as much an appetite as ever.” But the ability to satisfy that appetite hinges in great part on offering the right folks an incentive to connect. 

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