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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University November 10, 2003 | Vol. 33 No. 11
IPS Public Policy Symposium Highlights the Power of Ideas

By Kevin Sottak
Institute for Policy Studies

Research, sometimes defined as the search for new knowledge, is a cornerstone of the modern university. To faculty scholars, adding to the knowledge base is an end in itself; but outside the academy, the question is often asked, "What difference does it make?"

This question was the central focus of a recent symposium hosted by the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies. Ideas in Action: How Policy Research Affects the Real World paired seven senior IPS faculty with outside "respondents" from the public, private and nonprofit sectors to survey what's been learned through public policy research, what difference it's made and what the key questions are that are driving new research on pressing domestic policy challenges.

The symposium covered a diverse array of topics, reflecting IPS faculty interests: strategies and programs to reconnect "disconnected" youth and reintegrate young offenders into their communities; whether work force development programs are effective and why; the impact of welfare reform on fathers and working families; how housing affects children, the poor and other vulnerable populations; the role of nonprofits in strengthening society; and how to harness technological innovation for economic development.

The common thread running through this work, said IPS Director Sandra Newman, is a dual concern for the theory and the practice of policy. "As researchers, we adhere to scientific principles of research, but we also focus on real-world problems. And we combine our rigorous research with an understanding of — how you design policy, how you implement it and an understanding of the funding mechanisms and the instruments by which you get policy accomplished," Newman said.

Unlike traditional academic symposia, the program unfolded as a series of conversations between the faculty presenters, their respondents and members of the audience, which included representatives from city and state government, foundations and nonprofits as well as other social policy scholars.

The respondents included Lorenzo Harrison, administrator of youth services for the U.S. Department of Labor; Mary Ann Saar, Maryland secretary for public safety and correctional services; Beth Buehlman, executive director of the Center for Workforce Preparation at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; Wendell Primus, Democratic staff director for the Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress; Barry Zigas, senior vice president of the National Community Lending Center at Fannie Mae; Barbara Finberg, the past chair of Independent Sector; and Phillip Singerman, executive director of the Maryland Technology Development Corporation.

By commenting on the quality and relevance of the faculty's research, the respondents served as a "reality check" for the audience, Newman said.

Respondents cited numerous examples in which IPS researchers have contributed to meaningful changes in policy formulation and action. Saar noted that Maryland has begun adopting elements of David Altschuler's model for managing incarcerated youth, a model that emphasizes early prerelease planning, accurate risk and needs assessment of offenders and their families, and continuity of interventional and supportive services between the correctional institution and the community to reduce the odds of recidivism for offenders after release.

"We have learned, as David told you, that intensive supervision alone doesn't work," Saar said. Among other things, her department has created a new position, the "transition coordinator," to help guide the development and implementation of a release plan for all offenders "from the moment they are assessed and classified in the correctional facility."

Singerman credited Marsha Schachtel's work, in particular her Maryland Innovation and Technology Index and Maryland Technology Genealogy, with providing the impetus for a series of policy recommendations and activities designed to stimulate entrepreneurship and tap the economic potential of the state's substantial research and development sector.

The Index, Singerman said, revealed that in terms of research and development as a proportion of the state's total economy, Maryland actually exceeds Massachusetts, a state generally considered to be a benchmark for high-tech economic activity. "It is to Marsha's credit that her studies have for the first time quantified and illustrated this in a very detailed fashion, and it is now widely recognized and remarked upon by public officials in the state," Singerman said.

An audio file and transcript of the symposium will be available later this year on the IPS Web site,

The symposium was the capstone to a two-day program that led off with a lecture by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Caro, who delivered the George Huntington Williams Memorial Lecture at Shriver Hall. The lecture, "Power and Politics," was co-sponsored by IPS and the Office of the President.

The symposium luncheon speaker was journalist Hedrick Smith, also a Pulitzer Prize winner, who spoke about the role of the media in bringing attention to and, to a lesser extent, shaping discussion of social policy. Smith, a former correspondent for The New York Times and author of several books on American politics and policy, is executive producer for a series of award-winning PBS documentaries and miniseries on domestic policy issues.

In his opening remarks at the symposium, university President William R. Brody praised IPS for its commitment to rigorous research and graduate education. "Whether you're dealing with housing, health, family well-being, the incarcerated, the at-risk, the welfare system, work force development, neighborhood revitalization all of these issues are very challenging and complex, and in order to get traction on them, one has to have good data. One has to understand what works and what doesn't work, because you can't drive change, in my view, without data," Brody said.

"I think that is half the equation. The other half is that you have to train people to transfer that intellectual know-how about how to study these programs and how to create a compelling case for change and how to collect the data that allows us to monitor change and drive change. The Institute for Policy Studies has a very highly regarded graduate program that does just that," he said. "Without a group like the Institute for Policy Studies, Johns Hopkins would be much more of an ivory tower."


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