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Has the randomized trial movement has put the auditors in

charge of the R&D department?


http://chrisblattman.com/2016/02/25/13667/

My main problem with RCTs is that they make us think about interventions, policies, and
organizations in the wrong way. As opposed to the two or three designs that get tested
slowly by RCTs (like putting tablets or flipcharts in schools), most social interventions
have millions of design possibilities and outcomes depend on complex combinations
between them. This leads to what the complexity scientist Stuart Kauffman calls a
rugged fitness landscape.
Getting the right combination of parameters is critical. This requires that organizations
implement evolutionary strategies that are based on trying things out and learning
quickly about performance through rapid feedback loops, as suggestedby Matt
Andrews, Lant Pritchett and Michael Woolcock at Harvards Center for International
Development.
RCTs may be appropriate for clinical drug trials. But for a remarkably broad array of
policy areas, the RCT movement has had an impact equivalent to putting auditors in
charge of the R&D department. That is the wrong way to design things that work. Only
by creating organizations that learn how to learn, as so-called lean manufacturing has
done for industry, can we accelerate progress.
Thats Harvards Ricardo Hausmann writing in Project Syndicate.
I had the following reactions:

Absolutely, organizations should be doing innovating through rigorous trial and


error. And the case needs to be made, since many organizations dont know how to
do this.

But lets be honest: most governments and NGOs did not have R&D departments
that got hijacked by randomized trials. Most organizations I know were not doing
much in the way of systematic or rigorous research of any kind. Outside one or two
donors and development banks, the usual research result was a mediocre consulting
report rigged to look good.

In fact, most organizations I know have spent the majority of budgets on


programs with no evidence whatsoever. In the realm of poverty alleviation, for

Has the randomized trial movement has put the auditors in


charge of the R&D department?
http://chrisblattman.com/2016/02/25/13667/

example, it turns out that two of the favorites, vocational training and microfinance,
have almost no effect on poverty.

This goes to show that, without a market test, some kind of auditing or other
mechanism is probably needed. Especially the money-wasting behemoths of
programs that are still so common.

Sometimes the answer will be large-scale randomized trials. The way I see it,
trial-and-error-based innovation and clinical trials are complements not substitutes.
Most of the successful studies Ive run have followed a period of relatively informal
trial-and-error.

There are a few radicals in academia and aid who say everything should have a
randomized trial, but I think the smart ones dont really mean it, and the others I dont
take seriously. They are also the exception. If you look at the research agenda of most
of the so-called randomistas, experiments are only a fraction of their work.

In political science, the generation before me fought (and still fights) the
methodological war. My generation mostly gets on with doing both qualitative and
quantitative research more harmoniously. I feel the same way about the randomista
debate. People like me do a little observational work, a little forecasting, a little
qualitative work, some randomized trials, and Im even starting to do some trial-anderror style work with police in Latin America. I dont think Im the exception.

If anything, the surge of randomized trials have paved the way for rigorous trialand-error. Ive seen this at my wifes organization, the International Rescue
Committee. Eight years of randomized trials showed their organization and their
donors that some of their biggest investments were not making a difference in the
lives of poor people. This has built a case for going back to the drawing board on
community development or violence prevention, and now they are starting an R&D lab
that looks very similar to Hausmanns vision. They can do this because expanding a

Has the randomized trial movement has put the auditors in


charge of the R&D department?
http://chrisblattman.com/2016/02/25/13667/

research department to manage randomized trials brought in the people, skills, and
evidence base to make a case for innovation.

There are some structural problems in academic research that make this hard.
Organizations like Innovations for Poverty Action and the Poverty Action Lab have
drawn bright red lines around randomized trials, and most of the time dont facilitate
other kinds of research. But I can see adaptive and rigorous innovation fitting in.

(Updated) Some people have said oh but there are too many randomized trials
and too much emphasis. This is the nature of new research technologies. People
overdo them at first, since the opportunities are so large. Not so long ago everyone
ran cross-country regressions, or wrote a little theoretical game. These are still useful,
but theyve receded as new methods appear. So, this too will pass. Randomized trials
will join the pantheon of mediocre methods at our disposal. (The saddest statement is
that, to the aid industry, and to much of social science, a randomized trial is new.
Scientists are aghast at this.)
My view: we can push rigorous trial and error up without pushing other approaches to
learning down.
My main problem with RCTs is that they make us think about interventions, policies, and
organizations in the wrong way. As opposed to the two or three designs that get tested
slowly by RCTs (like putting tablets or flipcharts in schools), most social interventions
have millions of design possibilities and outcomes depend on complex combinations
between them. This leads to what the complexity scientist Stuart Kauffman calls a
rugged fitness landscape.
Getting the right combination of parameters is critical. This requires that organizations
implement evolutionary strategies that are based on trying things out and learning
quickly about performance through rapid feedback loops, as suggestedby Matt
Andrews, Lant Pritchett and Michael Woolcock at Harvards Center for International
Development.

Has the randomized trial movement has put the auditors in


charge of the R&D department?
http://chrisblattman.com/2016/02/25/13667/

RCTs may be appropriate for clinical drug trials. But for a remarkably broad array of
policy areas, the RCT movement has had an impact equivalent to putting auditors in
charge of the R&D department. That is the wrong way to design things that work. Only
by creating organizations that learn how to learn, as so-called lean manufacturing has
done for industry, can we accelerate progress.

My main problem with RCTs is that they make us think about interventions, policies, and
organizations in the wrong way. As opposed to the two or three designs that get tested slowly by
RCTs (like putting tablets or flipcharts in schools), most social interventions have millions of
design possibilities and outcomes depend on complex combinations between them. This leads
to what the complexity scientist Stuart Kauffman calls a rugged fitness landscape.

Getting the right combination of parameters is critical. This requires that organizations
implement evolutionary strategies that are based on trying things out and learning
quickly about performance through rapid feedback loops, as suggestedby Matt
Andrews, Lant Pritchett and Michael Woolcock at Harvards Center for International
Development.
RCTs may be appropriate for clinical drug trials. But for a remarkably broad array of
policy areas, the RCT movement has had an impact equivalent to putting auditors in
charge of the R&D department. That is the wrong way to design things that work. Only
by creating organizations that learn how to learn, as so-called lean manufacturing has
done for industry, can we accelerate progress.
Thats Harvards Ricardo Hausmann writing in Project Syndicate.
I had the following reactions:

Absolutely, organizations should be doing innovating through rigorous trial and


error. And the case needs to be made, since many organizations dont know how to
do this.

Has the randomized trial movement has put the auditors in


charge of the R&D department?
http://chrisblattman.com/2016/02/25/13667/

But lets be honest: most governments and NGOs did not have R&D departments
that got hijacked by randomized trials. Most organizations I know were not doing
much in the way of systematic or rigorous research of any kind. Outside one or two
donors and development banks, the usual research result was a mediocre consulting
report rigged to look good.

In fact, most organizations I know have spent the majority of budgets on


programs with no evidence whatsoever. In the realm of poverty alleviation, for
example, it turns out that two of the favorites, vocational training and microfinance,
have almost no effect on poverty.

This goes to show that, without a market test, some kind of auditing or other
mechanism is probably needed. Especially the money-wasting behemoths of
programs that are still so common.

Sometimes the answer will be large-scale randomized trials. The way I see it,
trial-and-error-based innovation and clinical trials are complements not substitutes.
Most of the successful studies Ive run have followed a period of relatively informal
trial-and-error.

There are a few radicals in academia and aid who say everything should have a
randomized trial, but I think the smart ones dont really mean it, and the others I dont
take seriously. They are also the exception. If you look at the research agenda of most
of the so-called randomistas, experiments are only a fraction of their work.

In political science, the generation before me fought (and still fights) the
methodological war. My generation mostly gets on with doing both qualitative and
quantitative research more harmoniously. I feel the same way about the randomista
debate. People like me do a little observational work, a little forecasting, a little
qualitative work, some randomized trials, and Im even starting to do some trial-anderror style work with police in Latin America. I dont think Im the exception.

Has the randomized trial movement has put the auditors in


charge of the R&D department?
http://chrisblattman.com/2016/02/25/13667/

If anything, the surge of randomized trials have paved the way for rigorous trialand-error. Ive seen this at my wifes organization, the International Rescue
Committee. Eight years of randomized trials showed their organization and their
donors that some of their biggest investments were not making a difference in the
lives of poor people. This has built a case for going back to the drawing board on
community development or violence prevention, and now they are starting an R&D lab
that looks very similar to Hausmanns vision. They can do this because expanding a
research department to manage randomized trials brought in the people, skills, and
evidence base to make a case for innovation.

There are some structural problems in academic research that make this hard.
Organizations like Innovations for Poverty Action and the Poverty Action Lab have
drawn bright red lines around randomized trials, and most of the time dont facilitate
other kinds of research. But I can see adaptive and rigorous innovation fitting in.

(Updated) Some people have said oh but there are too many randomized trials
and too much emphasis. This is the nature of new research technologies. People
overdo them at first, since the opportunities are so large. Not so long ago everyone
ran cross-country regressions, or wrote a little theoretical game. These are still useful,
but theyve receded as new methods appear. So, this too will pass. Randomized trials
will join the pantheon of mediocre methods at our disposal. (The saddest statement is
that, to the aid industry, and to much of social science, a randomized trial is new.
Scientists are aghast at this.)
My view: we can push rigorous trial and error up without pushing other approaches to
learning down.