Why Can't Researchers and Policymakers Just Get Along?

They rarely collaborate. But Jenni Owen, the policy director for North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, is part of a growing relationship between government and academia.
by | December 22, 2017
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When North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper took office last January, he wanted a policy director who could tap into the state’s research community for help. So he hired Jenni Owen, a Duke University professor who recently helped write and edit a book about building partnerships between the public sector and academia.  

Nationally, these kinds of collaborations are uncommon. But in the past few years, private foundations have stimulated their growth and funded projects throughout the country in which academic researchers study urgent policy questions and policymakers then use that research to make informed decisions.

This month, for example, North Carolina joined the Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative, which helps states review existing research and pursue policy ideas that have a proven record of success.

Owen's work experience draws from both worlds. She is a published academic who also served as a senior policy adviser to former North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt. We talked to her about what's keeping these two worlds apart, how she stays up to date on research, and more.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What do you think are the biggest barriers for academic research to inform policy decisions? And how can the two sectors overcome those barriers?

Timing, training, incentives to be successful and language -- those things all add up to a pretty understandable set of reasons why these sectors don’t naturally interact more.

The other thing is, are they asking the right questions? There are some really, really interesting research questions out there that might not be highly policy relevant. It's that tension between research for the sake of research, and research for policy impact. If I had to choose, in the social policy and education arenas, I would almost always come down on the side of do research that has the potential for impact. That’s huge and has huge potential. That’s an area where I think we could make a lot of progress for decisionmaking without either realm having to abandon its core principles.

How does research come to you, and how do you find it?

I’m not trying to be funny, but sometimes it comes in a manilla envelope addressed to me or addressed to the governor. Clearly, they must be sending 50 of these out, whatever the thing is. And that’s fine.

It's most helpful when somebody is really targeted and is saying, “I heard Gov. Cooper mention his goal of X yesterday, and did you know that research is coming up on that topic?” Sometimes that comes from the research community and sometimes it comes from a third party like a philanthropic foundation.

As far as seeking out research, I try to stop and think about where available, relevant, applicable information already exists, and that may result in my calling a specific organization that has pulled the pieces together. And, then, of course, there’s the “I think I know someone, or someone who knows someone, who’s an expert on this.”

Are peer-reviewed journals a source for you? Do you subscribe to any?

I’ve been receiving the Journal of Public Policy Analysis and Management for over a decade, and there’s another journal called Evidence & Policy that I started getting while I was at Duke. Because of the way those things are written -- by academics, for academics -- I think there’s only a tiny, tiny proportion of people in the public sector who spend time reading those, even though they have things that are relevant to policy.

Is there a specific policy decision the governor’s office has made because of a research finding?

Gov. Cooper is committed to increasing teacher pay across the state, and there are all sorts of ways you could do that. But we were asking, does research show anything about the most common points at which teachers leave their profession?

As a hypothetical, let’s assume that half of teachers quit within their first five years. Well, are there some points during the first five years where additional funding would help with retention? So it’s [about] strategic teacher pay. It’s not random dollar amounts at random points in somebody’s career.

And we did that. We asked the university, we asked the Education Commission of the States, and we asked our own folks internally if they had data that we could draw on where and when this happens in North Carolina.

Have you changed teacher pay based on what you found?

Gov. Cooper proposed in the last budget a teacher pay increase on a particular schedule that wasn’t arbitrary. [He called for an average pay increase of 5 percent, but in the 2018-2019 school year, teachers with 10-15 years experience would see the highest annual pay bumps.]

Do you think we’ll see more partnerships between policymakers and researchers in the future?

Definitely. I think research has a huge role to play in helping to support the capacity of public institutions. For example, is there a new study on opioids coming online that will yield useful information for what government is trying to do? Every type of funder is demanding evidence of what they’re getting for their money. How can you do that without evidence?