Sunday, April 19, 2009

Weekend Musing: Mutual Support

A newspaper story last week explored the importance of mutual support in the human and animal worlds. Over the years, we have come to understand that animal species, and perhaps plant species, practice cooperation far more than competition. “Survival of the fittest” does not necessarily mean every animal for itself.

An article in the New York Times Science Times reported that “plenty of nonhuman animals practice the tither’s art.” For example, if a rhesus monkey discovers a source of high-quality food, it is expected to call out to its comrades, to share. Vampire bats sometimes regurgitate a portion of their meal, to feed other hungry bats. Several varieties of birds and fish give up part of their “wealth” to help the larger community.

Contributing to the larger community, voluntarily or through payment of taxes, became a universal practice among humans as well: “There’s not a human society in the world that doesn’t redistribute food to nonrelatives” – the article quotes Samuel Bowles, of the Santa Fe Institute. “Whether it’s through the state, or the chief, or a rural collective, or some other mechanism, food sharing of large nutritional packages is quite extensive and has been going on for at least 100,000 years of human history.”

These observations fulfill the predictions of a thinker far ahead of her times, Arabella Buckley, who wrote more than 100 years ago, that science would someday recognize: “that the "Struggle for Existence," which has taught [insects] the lesson of self-sacrifice to the community, [also teaches that the] devotion of mother to child, and friend to friend ... recognizes that mutual help and sympathy are among the most powerful weapons [of survival].”

As we strive to meet the challenges we face, let’s remember that mutual support, sharing, and collaboration lie deep within our genes. As well, they contribute to our collective ability to survive with all the other human inhabitants of this planet. Competition serves a function at one level of human existence; but cooperation provides a higher level function that we must not ignore.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Ending Homelessness - the Right Thing to Do, in a Smart Way

“Heading Home Minnesota” intends to eliminate homelessness in this state. Jim Frey, of the Frey Foundation, recently wrote that this initiative is “not just right, but smart”.

Why “smart”? He mentions several reasons. Among them: a) The design of the initiative derives from knowledge of what works; its designers paid attention to research. b) It stresses collaboration. No one sector can solve the problem – business, government, nonprofits, and community residents, including homeless individuals themselves, must participate in the solution. c) The initiative stresses a three-pronged approach: prevention, supportive housing, and outreach.

Wilder Research has worked in partnership with other organizations and groups to address homelessness since the early 1980s. Currently, our Homeless Management Information System provides information and insight on the system of services which the state’s homeless access. Our once-every-three-years homelessness survey (to occur in fall of 2009) provides in-depth knowledge about the conditions of the state’s homeless residents. Through both of these tools, Wilder Research has influenced policies and funding in ways that will benefit homeless individuals and families, Minnesota’s taxpayers, business owners, and pretty much everyone in the state. We will continue to provide this information – to ensure up-to-date understanding of homelessness issues, to promote accountability, and to monitor our communities’ progress – until someday, hopefully, we and others will work ourselves out of a job.

I suspect that Heading Home Minnesota will make progress; it might, or might not, completely achieve its goal. Regardless, we will learn more about what can work. We will learn how to spend money more wisely. We will learn how to collaborate more effectively – as institutions and as individuals. As Jim stated, “Our public and private investments must be productive. We should be investing in a system that promotes education, employment, health and responsibility among homeless children, youths, and adults. This is what homeless people want for themselves. This is what we want for our communities. This is what we need for our future.”

See Jim Frey’s full essay: Heading Home Minnesota – not just right, but smart

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

An Award for Wilder Research - Some Lessons Learned

Wilder Research has received the 2009 Public Sociology Award, given by the University of Minnesota’s Department of Sociology in recognition of our efforts “to do research that directly informs public debates and engages wider publics.” We value and appreciate this honor, and we will continue to work to provide high quality social research that promotes effective community action, efficient services, better policies, and better engagement of all of us in improving our communities’ quality of life.

To be successful, we’ve learned that at least four ingredients are essential, and I would like to share them with you:.

1. Solid research. The quality of information depends on the methods used to obtain it. We do not have a “one size fits all” mentality. Rather, we identify the best method(s) for obtaining information, depending on the questions which we or others need to answer. We include social scientists from all disciplines on our staff, because we don’t feel that any one discipline has a corner on the market for searching for the right answers. We build on theories and previous research from all disciplines. When we use a method we make sure that competent staff gather, analyze, and interpret information in accordance with the highest scientific standards. Much of this occurs transparently, providing an unseen foundation. Nonetheless, this foundation enables us to construct studies which will withstand criticism and provide the opportunity to obtain sound, up-to-date knowledge.

2. Credible research. We do not strive to produce what people want to hear; we strive to produce what people need to hear. We do not seek to please; we seek to provoke thought and creativity and to enhance insight. We feel that our audiences deserve research results which any reasonable person would accept as legitimate, unbiased, reasonable, and relevant (even if that person disagrees with those results). Some research “think tanks” become associated with a “point of view”; they can please adherents of that point of view, but they struggle to gain acceptance of their findings and interpretations, no matter how valid they may be, among other audiences. We take steps to appeal to people with all sorts of predispositions. We do this, for example, by forming study advisory committees with diverse representatives who do not necessarily agree with each other and who challenge us to find a way to gather information that all sides of an issue will accept as credible. We take great pride in the many occasions where liberals and conservatives, Republicans, Democrats, and Independents have all cited Wilder Research data to support their conclusions and recommendations.

3. Practical research. Our work must answer questions that will guide long-term strategic decisions and short-term operational decisions regarding policies, funding, programming, and other activities. We involve decision-makers, in general and specific ways, to advise on the design of our work, and in critiquing our work after completion, for continued improvement. The greater the use of our findings, the more we feel we have achieved our goals for Wilder Research.

4. Mission-driven research. Above all, we carry out our efforts in humble dedication to the improvement of the well-being of all members of the community. This dedication motivates individuals to join the Wilder Research staff, and it sustains them to carry out the highest quality applied research.

As always, I welcome your comments – and even your challenges – to keep us on track, continuing to accomplish the best possible work.