Called to Testify

Legislative hearings give researchers an opportunity to shape decision-making

By Carl Vogel

News Type
SSA Magazine (Archive)


Five minutes, maybe ten if you’re lucky. That’s typically how much time at a hearing a researcher is allotted to present the findings of a major study or a career’s worth of work. It can be a nerve-wracking experience to be under the lights in front of a panel of legislators. But the rewards are intense as well.

Testimony room


SSA faculty members describe what it takes to be called to testify on their areas of expertise to legislators—and how the experience can affect policy decisions that can have far-ranging impact. Neil Guterman, Jeanne Marsh, Jens Ludwig, Dexter Voisin and Mark Courtney give insight into what it’s like to testify at a federal or state legislative hearing and how they worked to bring their experience and research to legislators in a way that can have the most impact.



“It’s very hard to translate what we as scholars know to be a very complex world and distill the information into very straightforward policy recommendations that are scientifically sound, feasible and also politically palatable,” says Neil Guterman, SSA’s dean and Mose & Sylvia Firestone Professor. “How do you boil down a thousand different articles and books? It’s not an easy thing to do.”

Guterman’s experience with policy testimony came last year, when he was asked to provide his perspective to the Attorney General’s National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence, a multi-city set of hearings designed to make policy and practice recommendations to Attorney General Eric Holder to prevent children’s exposure to violence and mitigate its negative effects. A similar task force provided the impetus for the Violence Against Women Act in 1994, so Guterman says he was glad to be able to participate.

“I felt an enormous responsibility because I knew what I said could potentially affect policy and programs nationwide,” says Guterman, who was one of three experts on a panel that discussed the cost of childhood exposure to violence and the benefit of investing in prevention. “Policy changes can have a tangible and immediate impact on people’s lives, so the opportunity was exciting and humbling.”

Jeanne Marsh, SSA’s George Herbert Jones Distinguished Service Professor, can attest to how testimony can make a difference. As a young academic, her study with colleagues of changes to criminal sexual assault laws in Michigan found that after the laws were enacted, arrest and conviction rates went up and the burden on victims went down. Their 1982 book, Rape and the Limits of Law Reform, caught the eye of legislators on the Subcommittee on Criminal Justice of the House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary, who used her testimony in hearings about reforming federal rape laws. That work, in turn, brought her to Springfield, where she gave similar testimony to the Illinois State Legislature.

“I know that the reality is that how legislation gets written is a function of many things. Research, unfortunately, doesn’t always get used that much,” Marsh says. “Academics, especially social work researchers, are in the business because we want to have an impact. Well, sitting in front of lawmakers, explaining your work, that’s an incredible opportunity.”

In 2006, Jens Ludwig, SSA’s McCormick Foundation Professor of Social Service Administration, Law, and Public Policy, was contacted by a former student who was staffing the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary. Sen. Arlen Specter, who chaired the committee, was hoping to convince Republican colleagues that laws that improved re-entry and rehabilitation for criminals would pay dividends to society. Ludwig, then a professor at Georgetown University, was asked to present research on the costs of crime to society.

“The current research literature at the time didn’t include any estimates that were up to date, and so I basically had to write a little mini-paper from scratch figuring out what the up-to-date costs might be, and spent a huge amount of time preparing for the hearing,” Ludwig says. He found that the annual costs to be on the order of $2 trillion annually—a figure he characterized at the hearing as a “crime tax” that equals around 17 percent of the country’s GDP. He also noted that the rates of crime victimization, particularly violent street crime, are more than twice as high for low-income households than families with more than $75,000 in income.

“It was much more nerve wracking than I had anticipated,” Ludwig admits. “All of a sudden, all these senators who you are used to seeing on television all the time walked into the room.” After his ten minutes of remarks, the committee asked him some questions about his work, a process he describes as relatively amiable.

On another occasion, though, a hearing on Project Exile, a federal sentencing program for gun cases, the process was a bit less smooth. The police chiefs and prosecutors on the panel were in agreement that the policy was great. “I was the only person in the room saying, ‘Um, the evidence suggests it doesn’t actually work,’” Ludwig says. “That was not my most fun professional experience.”

Academics with experience testifying say either of Ludwig’s experiences can be common. Many times, the legislators are looking to confirm their agenda with research that agrees with their notions. “You can get softball questions that lead you into talking about something they want to get on the record,” Guterman says. “In my experience, it’s not a confrontational experience they’re looking to have an informed discussion.”

However, empirical research doesn’t always get the respect you would think it deserves. “One senator said to me, ‘It is crucial that we develop an evidence-based crime policy,’” Ludwig says about the crime cost hearing. “Two sentences later he said, ‘I don’t know what the ‘research’ says about this, but I have seen for myself on the ground that this thing works!’”

Dexter Voisin, an associate professor at SSA, has experienced the impact of politics on policy during testimony on his research on prevention of HIV/AIDS. In a hearing of the Appropriations/Public Safety Committee of the Illinois House on whether to provide condoms in prison, for example, it was clear that no matter what studies showed about the benefits of condom distribution for stopping sexually transmitted disease, some legislators were simply not going to change their position on the topic.

“I understand that the issue of distributing condoms in prison can be very contentious, and some people may want to develop policies on ideology, not research,” Voisin says. He adds, though, even with such a political and for some stigmatizing issue, there was still an opportunity to be a resource for several members of the panel. “For instance, some of the legislators were legitimately asking me about costs and benefits associated with condom distribution in prisons—what did the research show about its effects on reducing risky sex.”

“I have not found that one side of the aisle is better than the other at putting aside preconceived notions in the face of evidence,” says Mark Courtney, a professor at SSA who has testified extensively at both the federal and state levels about the child welfare system during his career, including several times before the Human Resources Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee and to the Wisconsin and Washington state legislatures.

“There are some people who think more money for programs is always better, and they don’t want to hear the nuance about what we’ve found about how a program actually performed. And some people say that government doesn’t have any answers and aren’t interested in hearing about success or genuine need,” Courtney says. “When it comes to testimony, I think of myself as trying to reach the people who believe what the evidence says.”

So how does a researcher get asked to testify to lawmakers? There are hundreds of academic papers and books published every year around any social policy you can name, and experts are on the faculties of universities around the country. How does one get that rare opportunity to speak directly to the people who are making such important policies?

Sometimes timing is everything. Jeanne Marsh, for instance, will be the first to tell you that the release of her research on the impact of rape laws coincided perfectly with a deep interest in reforming the federal laws.

On the other hand, Mark Courtney first testified to Congress in 1999 about his research on the difficulties facing youth aging out of the foster care system at age 18, based on his 1990s study of foster youth in Wisconsin. That research informed the passage of the 1999 John Chafee Foster Care Independence Act, which doubled federal funding for state-provided services to help older youth succeed after they “age out”—but retained a cutoff of federal funding for foster care at age 18.

It wasn’t until 2008, with the passage of the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, that federal legislation provided states with funding to extend foster care from 18 to 21. Courtney testified during the hearings leading up to that law too, this time backed up by his research comparing outcomes in Iowa and Wisconsin, which discharged youth from care at age 18, to outcomes in Illinois, which allowed youth to remain in care to 21, showing the benefits of allowing youth to stay in foster care longer.

“It took a while to show Congress that it really does matter, that with these reforms, [the youth] really do better,” Courtney says. “I did get a thank-you note, though, from Nick Gwyn, [the staff director of the Subcommittee on Income Security and Family Support for the House Committee on Ways and Means] for my testimony around these issues.”

Courtney’s extensive research on the child welfare system has led to relatively frequent calls to testify, but he says that connection is in no way inevitable. “Sometimes people get called out of the blue to testify, but often it turns on the willingness of a researcher to build relationships,” he says. In the 1990s, for example, he took the time to talk with Ron Haskins, the Republican staff director of the House Ways and Means Human Resources Subcommittee, whenever they would see each other at conferences, and he keeps in regular contact with groups like the National Governors Association and the American Public Human Services Association.

Dexter Voisin was known to Children’s Place Association, Chicago, a nonprofit that serves people with HIV/AIDS, when they were starting a campaign in 2008 to lower youth HIV infection rates. At their request for original research on the topic, he used focus groups to discern what messages and methods did the best job in promoting prevention. When Children’s Place used that research in their report to Springfield, it helped convince legislators to pass a bill that will establish a statewide task force to inform the Illinois Department of Public Health on how to reach youth with effective HIV prevention messages.

“Community-based groups and NGOs are often at the forefront of providing services and lobbying on behalf of their constituents,” Voisin says. “It’s important that academics offer their expertise to these organizations in order to bring about policy and social change.”

Both Courtney and Voisin agree that the first step in being asked for input on policy comes from the research itself, in choosing to study aspects of an issue that can be affected by changes in policy and in explaining the research in clear, accessible ways. For example, Courtney’s research on adolescents in foster care has found that half of the young women in foster care have a child themselves by the time they are 21.

“Obviously, that’s something that practitioners who care for these young women want to know, but it’s also good for policymakers to know that there will be many young parents in the child welfare system,” he says. “I’m always thinking about whether my work has implications for policy at the state and national level. To do that, though, you have to understand existing policy.”

Courtney regularly publishes his results in academic journals, but to effect real-world change, he also helps create issue briefs, often in conjunction with Chapin Hall, that simplify the language and bring important policy implications to the fore. “It helps when there is a willingness to talk in the language of policymakers and to frame the work in ways that policymakers will understand,” he says. “You don’t want to oversell any findings or ignore nuance. But if you can’t tell a coherent story, then you won’t be heard in a policymaking forum.”

To Courtney, that kind of willingness to have an impact on policy—and the capacity to do so—is one of the strengths of the School. “A place like SSA is very important because distinguished social scientists across disciplines think about how their research has an impact and makes a difference.”

That kind of impact doesn’t happen only through the five-minute-plus-Q&A process of testifying  efore a committee, of course, although those high profile moments may be the most visible. Neil Guterman, for instance, is currently working with the State of Massachusetts as a consultant to help 25 programs across the state to implement evidence-based practices to prevent child maltreatment.

“At SSA, our work is explicitly designed to make a difference,” Guterman says. “Our faculty members are always looking for partnerships and other avenues that allow us to take what we’ve learned through research and have it be influential in policy and programs that impact  people’s lives in a positive way.”