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Arguing about funding obscures important issues of quality research

Author: Michael Sanders

Arguing about funding obscures important issues of quality research

Richard Thaler, the Chicago professor of economics and incoming president of the American Economic Association, has as one of his many mantras the truism that “we can’t do evidence based policy without evidence”. The government’s recent decision to establish a number of “What Works Centres” to collate, analyse and, in some cases, produce, evidence on a number of policy areas seek to address the very problem of a lack of evidence.

Evidence itself, however, is not in short supply. Newspapers fill their pages, day after day, with the results of studies into some facet of human behaviour, or statistics on the state of the world. So, there need to be two other criteria for evidence than mere ‘existence’ – goodness, and usability. I should be clear at the outset that when I say “Good”, I mean “Capable of determining a causal relationship between an input and an output”. Sadly, not all evidence which is good is useable, and often tragically, not all evidence that is usable is good.

As Ben Goldacre points out in his recent paper for the department for education, many researchers in that field like qualitative work, and use this as the basis for their findings. As an economist, I have a natural scepticism for such research, but I cannot dispute that it is eminently useable. The arguments constructed by such research are easily and well presented. They offer solutions which are simple, and neat. However, as H.L. Mencken said, these arguments are almost always also wrong. This research is usable but very much of it is not good.

On the other side, much research which is good, and detailed, and thorough, presents complicated and nuanced answers which reflect reality but whose methods are impenetrable to anyone who might actually have the power to change policy accordingly.

Randomised Controlled Trials (RCTs) are both useable, with the majority of results presentable in an easily understood way and the methodology being simple enough to explain to a lay person in about five minutes. As the recognised ‘gold standard’ of evaluation, they are also indisputably good.

In a blog post for the LSE impact blog, Neil Harris, a researcher at Bristol’s Centre for Causal Analysis in Translation Epidemiology, argues that education research is a public good and needs to be funded by the state, as, unlike in medicine, there is not money to be made by researchers through patent development, education being a public good. He is, of course, absolutely right. The structure of his argument implies however, that in order to get good evidence, it will need to be paid for – i.e. that RCTs are expensive, while qualitative research is cheap. If the government wants better education research, they should give researchers more money. But, well, we would say that, wouldn’t we?

The argument that RCTs are expensive is a well-worn one, but is not helpful, and often dangerously distracting. Saying that an RCT is expensive is akin to saying “Vehicles are expensive”. If one chooses to put up Ferraris as an example, then of course they are. A scooter, however, is not. Both are better than walking.

A good quality, robust RCT need not be outlandishly expensive, and certainly not any more so than qualitative analysis. Unlike medical trials, the marginal cost of interventions in policy is often not far above that of treatment as usual (the most logical control condition). Teaching phonics in 50 schools and not in 50 others should not require vast resources once allocation has taken place. Although the government does not spend as much money on policy research as it does on medicine, it spends a lot of money gathering data on the outcomes many researchers are interested in. At the end of a child’s GCSEs, finding out how well they did does not require specialist staff to draw their blood and perform expensive tests on them. The school knows the answer.

It is important not to downplay the risks or costs associated with RCTs, but nor is it possible to present these costs as a reason for conducting, or accepting, substandard research. As researchers, if our work is of low quality, there is only so far the buck can be passed.

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