Taking Advantage of Natural Settings
Posted on February 15, 2006
Kenneth Dodge (bio) suggests that researchers should look for opportunities to conduct natural experiments.
We as a field don't take advantage of natural experiments enough that happen that researchers, if they were involved in those contexts, could study. The primary requirement of a good research design is randomization. Well, there is a lot of randomization that's happening in policy all the time. Why do these 50 counties get the money and those didn't? It's pretty random sometimes. Or the money was supposed to happen but it ran out in September and there was no more money left for the rest of the year. That's reasonably random. A researcher could evaluate that.
I can think of a couple of examples. There was a nice study done here in North Carolina by Phil Cook about making money available for abortions and the state money ran out in September of a particular year. You could chart the behavior of teenagers and you could chart the birthrate with birthdates based on when the money was available and when it ran out. It had all the elements of a pretty good randomized experiment.
If researchers are embedded in those policy contexts and know what's going on, they could do studies in those contexts that become preventive intervention studies, even though nobody thought from the beginning that they were going to be a randomized experiment. I think there's a lot of opportunities there.