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When civic and community groups - and the foundations that support them - address public-policy issues, should universities be part of that effort? My answer is an enthusiastic yes! Let me illustrate why with a couple of examples.
Examples of Policy-Relevant Research at Universities
There is growing awareness of the rapid growth of our Latino population. By the middle of the twenty-first century, one out of four people in the United States will be Latino.(1) Why the rapid growth? Most public officials, civic groups, philanthropists, reporters, and voters would say the primary reason is immigration. But demographers who study Latinos know better. The primary reason for the rapid growth is above-average birthrates among Latinos who reside in the United States.(2) This important bit of knowledge is overlooked in the debate over immigration, bilingual education, very high dropout rates among Latino schoolchildren, and other relevant questions of public policy.
In another example, if we ask those same civic leaders about the main problem posed by the growing Latino presence, they are likely to reply that Latinos are not learning English and assimilating into U.S. society fast enough. Again, peer-reviewed scholarship at universities tells a different story. Assimilation does occur, and it is hazardous to Latinos' health! Studies that compare first-, second-, and third-generation Latino immigrants have produced disturbing findings. When social indicators such as health, crime, school dropout rates, and unemployment are compared, the grandchildren of Latino immigrants are worse off than their less-assimilated grandparents. Again, this relatively unknown research has important implications for public policy making.
These examples of research on Latinos illustrate a much broader problem. Many fields of scholarship at today's universities produce findings of potential use to people who make or influence public policy University faculty who create new knowledge through research are potential partners in the civic networks that develop around specific policy issues. Faculty are already in the business of informing, through research and teaching. Why shouldn't universities help bring knowledge to bear in policy debates, so that policy makers might be better informed? Potential consumers of university research include policy makers …