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Controlled Studies Meet Practice Knowledge

Scientific and human service communities partner for proven programs

The highly controlled environment of a scientific study couldn’t be more different from the messy environment faced by human-serving organizations, but if they are to be effective, programs must be successful in both worlds.

To bridge the gap between the scientific research community and the human services sector, the Boys Town National Research Institute, at Alliance for Children and Families member Father Flanagan’s Boys’ Home, in Boys Town, Neb., widely known as Boys Town, has developed a mutually beneficial partnership with the Center for Child and Family Well-Being at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.

To promote implementation success and scalability, they are working together to develop and test interventions that have already been found to be feasible and effective in community settings. Disruptive Forces: Driving a Human Services Revolution predicted that nonprofits will partner with the research community to shape how to cost-effectively implement scientific advances. This work is one example of the Disruptive Force Integrating Science.

Blending Evaluation and Implementation

Human service providers are increasingly required by funders to employ evidence-based practices. Though stemming from a conscientious, cost-effective mindset, requiring organizations to use evidence-based practices is not a failsafe solution. Evidence-based practices typically are proven in tightly controlled efficacy trials at university-based research centers that do not fully acknowledge circumstances around scalability or the complexity of the challenges and environments faced by service providers or program participants.

“The bottom line is that even though there has been a lot of research funding devoted to evidence-based practices, they aren’t widely used in our service system,” says Ron Thompson, director of the Boys Town National Research Institute. “It’s hard to make programs that have been tested in efficacy trials work in regular systems.”

Thompson notes that partnerships between human-serving organizations and the research community are important for:

  • adapting existing interventions to meet community challenges,
  • developing preventive interventions in response to community challenges, and
  • determining the efficacy of interventions that have been developed and found to be feasible in community settings.

“The predominant process is to first complete scientific efficacy trials, then implementation trials and preparation for scaling. But, through our agency-university partnership, we’re conducting experimental trials on programs that already have demonstrated promising outcomes and signs of scalability,” says Thompson. “We feel like it’s a big step in terms of translating research into practice.”

Creating a True Partnership

Boys Town launched its National Research Institute for Child and Family Studies in 1989 with the intention of conducting applied research on effective ways to help at-risk children and families. However, its road to fulfilling this mission was filled with challenges.

While Boys Town started with a fairly strong internal research capacity and data-driven culture, it didn’t have access to control groups that are necessary for large experimental trial evaluations and it also needed the significant funding that these evaluations require, often about $3 million each.

The organization began in the early ‘90s by applying for federal grants from the National Institutes of Health, but had little success in securing funding.

“They thought we were just a service organization and not that serious about science,” says Thompson. “Approximately 10 years ago we decided to partner with university-based scientists and approach funding agencies as a partnership that combines the assets of a university-based research center and a large, high-quality service provider.”

However, the search for ready and willing research partners held many of the same obstacles. In addition to questioning the research capacity of the organization, universities were not willing to take on Boys Town’s research agenda. Ultimately, Thompson reconnected with one of the scientists at University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Center for Child and Family Well-Being, who previously worked for the Boys Town National Research Institute, and they found common ground.

“A lot of other contacts didn’t seem promising because people were interested in continuing their own research and not really in starting a new program of research related to our questions about services,” says Thompson “This was the first place that was willing to initiate a whole new program of research related to our service questions.”

The partnership began in 2005 around shared goals to:

  • conduct high-quality research on children and families with or at risk for emotional and behavioral disorders;
  • develop and study evidence-based interventions and services for at-risk children;
  • increase collaboration with national experts in child welfare, juvenile justice, education, and mental health; and
  • provide educational and research opportunities for undergraduate, graduate, and post-doctoral students.

Achieving Sustainability

The partnership has incrementally developed its research base by hiring scientists one by one. The scientists were hired to secure federal funding and execute research projects. Their income was covered by the organizations while they applied for grants, which would ultimately support them and their research.

During the same time, the Boys Town National Research Institute was able to increase internal research capacity by attracting staff who had experience in or potential for obtaining federal funding for research related to Boys Town’s mission and strategic goals. Using both approaches, the partnership has secured about $13 million in research funding from federal agencies over the last eight years. Right now, the partnership has six full-time research scientists, seven full-time research analysts, a significant amount of time from a professor with an endowed chair at the university, one post-doctoral research fellow, Ph.D. students, and staff who are fully supported by internal funds from both organizations and federal research grants.

“We’ve dramatically increased our capacity to do high-quality research with a relatively modest investment,” says Thompson.

The partnership’s primary lines of research are:

  • services research on methods for assessing program implementation and how implementation affects outcomes;
  • aftercare research on developing and evaluating services to improve outcomes for youth and families after out-of-home care;
  • parent/family research to conduct efficacy studies on parent intervention, parent support, and family services;
  • education research on classroom-based behavior management; and
  • research on health status and health literacy interventions and the use of psychotropic medication among at-risk youth.

“We went into it with eyes wide open,” says Thompson. “We had published more than 150 scientific papers, knew prominent people in the scientific community, and one of our first steps in forming the partnership was to appoint a scientific advisory panel. We had quite a bit of research expertise and experience internally that we were able to build upon.”

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