Collaboration links real life to research on what works


Robert Boruch directs the Campbell Collaboration.

Photo by Candace diCarlo

To not a lot of fanfare, 90 people from around the world converged on the Inn at Penn last month for a groundbreaking meeting.

Their mission: Create a systematic way for high-quality research and knowledge to reach government agencies, policymakers, social welfare organizations, even doctors, thereby improving policy decisions that affect peoples’ lives.

The group is called the Campbell Collaboration and its director is Robert Boruch, Trustee Professor of Education in the Graduate School of Education and professor of statistics at Wharton.

It’s modeled after a similar research distillation and dissemination process in the field of medicine called the Cochrane Collaboration, founded in 1963 in England. Cochrane director Iain Chalmers approached Boruch in 1998, after the medical group realized that some of the research of use to physicians fell partly in the social sciences.

Boruch, a world-class expert on randomized field experiments for planning and evaluating interventions in the social sector, saw this as an opportunity to rationalize social policy decisions.

“I had sufficient interest in investing all of my leisure time — and time stolen from other things,” Boruch said.

At an exploratory meeting at University College in London last summer, 80 people from six countries agreed that a new collaboration was indeed worth pursuing, and named a steering committee with Boruch as chair. The next step was to create umbrella review groups for targeted areas — social work and social welfare, crime, and justice and education.

The Campbell Collaboration’s challenge is to make each report meet the quality standards that the Cochrane Collaboration has been able to achieve, but in fields where reliable data collection has historically been inconsistent.

“It makes it clear that focusing on randomized, controlled experiments gives more of a guarantee,” Boruch said.

Finally, the reports will have to follow a consistent format and be correctable and updatable.

“We have to make sure the kinds of reviews done are germane to the interests of the cops, the courts, for example,” he said.

The Campbell Collaboration is named after internationally eminent social psychologist Donald T. Campbell, whose 1969 paper “Reforms as Experiments” persuaded researchers and policymakers to regard social reforms as experiments that could generate good evidence about the reforms’ effectiveness.

The meeting here attracted support from the graduate schools of Education and Social Work, the Annenberg School and the Fels Center for Government.

“The implication is that this idea cuts across schools and disciplines in a remarkable way,” Boruch said. “Sooner or later it would be lovely to engage the School of Nursing, Wharton and others. ...

“It’s a big gorilla. It’s one of the things that makes it fun.”

Originally published on March 23, 2000