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February 21st, 2010

The Importance of Social Science Research to Conservatives

IPCWritten by: Brinn Shjegstad, Ph.D & Patti Brown, M.S., M.S.W
Iowa Policy Institute

The role of research in the policymaking process is an ongoing debate among America’s academic elite, particularly social scientists. Do policymakers care about social science research and applying academic standards to policy research? What is the best way to distribute research findings to policymakers? Does the nature (fast pace, institutionalism, etc.) of the policy process inhibit the use of academic research? These are only a couple of questions that academics are trying to answer.

Under the surface of many of these debates is the belief that conservative politicians and research organizations ignore the findings of social science research and are immune to both the benefits of social science research to public policy and the importance of applying academic standards to policy research.

Some criticism by conservatives on the political leanings of those who conduct social science research is warranted. Dr. Jay Belsky, a casualty of the day care wars, once stated, “I’ve come to believe that too much of social science research, especially as it gets disseminated, is ideology masquerading as science.”

While the findings of social science research are victim to ideological spin, the role of social science research in establishing conservative solutions to policy problems should not be discredited. And while many social science researchers use research findings to promote liberal public policies; understanding, supporting, and utilizing social science research does not have to equate to big government solutions.

Scientific research tells us how things work, helps to understand why things are the way they are, and sometimes just informs society about problems that exist. According to the late Columbia University Sociologist Dr. Robert Merton, “The function of social science research, then is not simply to supply information useful in remedying problems already known, it serves to make the problems known.”

To illustrate how understanding and utilizing social science research can help conservatives debate in the policy arena, we will use findings from the NICHD (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development) Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, a longitudinal study on the impact of child care quality on children’s long-term cognitive, academic, and socioemotional development.

Social science researchers have used findings from this study to show the importance of child care quality in producing positive child outcomes. In turn, many policymakers have used these findings to construct policies (primarily at the state level) that are shown to be linked to child care quality, such as child care licensing and provider training standards. If the Republican Party of Iowa wants to pass one of the components of its Liberty Agenda unveiled last fall, The Iowa Good Neighbor Act, then it will have to counter arguments coming from the other side of the aisle using findings from studies such as the NICHD.

Conservatives can use the same studies and data to counter the arguments posed by the other side. Is child care quality linked to better child outcomes? Yes. Several studies corroborate the findings of the NICHD study and child care quality is particularly salient to low-income children’s development. However, a 2003 article by researchers on the NICHD study published in one of the nation’s premier academic journals, Child Development, noted that while child care quality is beneficial to children’s development it accounts for less than 5% of the variance in children’s developmental outcomes after taking into account family factors such as maternal education and family structure.

Thus, conservatives could make the case that while child care quality is important, dramatically increasing public funding to support a mechanism that only accounts for 5% of children’s outcomes may not be the best public policy. Furthermore, conservatives can make the case that to improve children’s developmental outcomes public policy should focus on addressing factors such as family structure or make the case that influencing family factors cannot be changed through government intervention but instead are best addressed by non-government entities such as faith-based and civic organizations.

In summary, research itself is not the problem. The findings of empirical research, properly done and understood can help inform good public policy and help conservatives promote good solutions to the many problems faced by our nation and state. Conservatives should be careful about throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Brinn Shjegstad, Ph.D and Patti Brown, M.S., M.S.W. are researchers with the Iowa Policy Institute, a public policy research and analysis firm. Visit them at

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