In recognizing Matt Stagner, president of APPAM, David Johnson, the immediate past president recalled his open and accessible nature that balanced his intense focus. “Matt is very welcoming,” he said. “But Matt is laser focused on improving the well-being of children. He has continued his career on improving children’s lives… every project, every report, every paper includes children at risk. And, his commitment to APPAM is exemplary.”
However, Stagner spent most of his address at the APPAM Presidential Address & Awards Happy Hour at the 41st Annual Fall Research Conference with the recognition that while he, like many of his peers, entered public policy research because they “wanted to make an impact,” he found that research and evidence made up only a small sliver of what drove policy decisions. “We are the one percent,” he said. “and I hate being in the one percent.”
He recalled his early career, spent at the Department of Health and Human Services, trying to use research to help guide policy in child welfare and family placement services. But his study did not have the intended influence in family placement policy. In fact, it had a negligible effect. To Stagner, the reason was clear: “The well-designed, well-implemented policy is no match for emotion.”
So, how can policy researchers take a bigger role in driving policy decisions? According to Stagner, evidence-based research becomes more effective when it answers the questions that matter the most to those on the ground. “When you talk about healthcare, ‘will I get to keep my doctor?’ is an emotional question,” he said. “We need to invest in those emotions.”
To Stagner, field research needs to get closer to understanding the emotional investment of the people in the programs being studied and why they feel the way they do. “In many ways, we’re like 19th century photographers,” Stagner said of his fellow researchers. “We ask the subjects we’re studying to stay still, and if they move, the picture gets blurry. But the people that we are studying can’t stay still.”
In addition to Stagner’s remarks, Dr. Nathan Hultman and Dr. Gregory Nemet were awarded the World Citizen Prizes in Environmental Performance, and Russ Whitehurst was named winner of the Spencer Foundation Award. Said the newly retired Whitehurst of his award, “to get this recognition at the end of my career is especially sweet.”
A video of the address can be found here.