NEW YORK -- Cutting-edge research on major issues like COVID-19 and the climate crisis will not lead to effective policies if political leaders do not see and respond to new research developments. But do they? In recent years, policy choices have seemed increasingly politicized. Research from Jonas Hjort, the Gary Winnick and Martin Granoff Associate Professor of Business and Chazen Senior Scholar at Columbia Business School, finds direct evidence that political leaders are interested in—and willing to devote time and resources to accessing—new research. Providing new research findings to local elected officials can ultimately lead to policy change.
“The whole science eco-system and the idea of enlightened society it is built on, assumes that new knowledge influences policy and practice. We were curious as to what extent research actually affects political decisions,” said Professor Hjort. “Through two experiments, we found that exposing policymakers to new findings can significantly influence the policies they implement in their own communities.”
Hjort and his co-authors, University of California Davis Professor Diana Moreira, Harvard University Professor Gautam Rao, and Juan Francisco Santini of Innovations for Poverty Action collaborated with the National Confederation of Municipalities in Brazil to work with the mayors of 2,150 municipalities. The researchers examined a lab experiment and a separate field study to measure mayors’ demand for research information and their response to what they learned from the research findings. They found that political leaders value access to impact evaluations, update their beliefs when informed of the research findings, and often act on the new information learned.
In the lab experiment, researchers offered new findings to municipality leaders for a certain price, explaining that the results could offer significant insight into decisions relevant for their governance. The researchers found that there was high demand for accessing the new research: municipal leaders were eager to learn the findings.
In the field study, the researchers exposed a group of randomly chosen Brazilian mayors and other municipal leaders to new research about a particular policy. This policy—taxpayer reminder letters—had been found to effectively increase tax revenue in several studies. One year later, Hjort and his coauthors found that the municipal leaders exposed to the research information were 10 percentage points more likely to send reminder letters to taxpayers in their municipality, indicating that when political leaders are exposed to new research, they often act on what they learned in their policy and practice decisions.
“Our research offers some hope in a time when humanity can no longer thrive without good policy choices. When Brazilian politicians were exposed to new findings, they were able to use the new research, ” said Professor Hjort. “We hope that our findings hold true more generally and that the fight against climate change, future pandemics, and global poverty can be knowledge-based.”
The study, How Research Affects Policy: Experimental Evidence from 2,150 Brazilian Municipalities can be found online here.
To learn more about the cutting-edge research being conducted at Columbia Business School, please visit www.gsb.columbia.edu.