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Economist to testify before presidential commission on 'big data,' policy decisions

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

LAWRENCE — A University of Kansas economist will testify this week before a presidential panel examining how to increase the availability and use of government data to build evidence and inform program design.

Donna Ginther, professor of economics and director of the KU Center for Science, Technology & Economic Policy, will address the importance of evidence-based policy. The public hearing before the Commission on Evidence-Based Policy Making is scheduled for the afternoon of Thursday, Jan. 5, at the Ralph H. Metcalfe Federal Building in Chicago.

As part of her broad research portfolio, Ginther has advocated for a web-based infrastructure for data sharing and analysis to help researchers and policymakers better understand decisions that pertain to issues surrounding economic growth, technological advancement and other societal issues. Much work of the Center for Science, Technology & Economic Policy has focused on linking several data sources together to create a "big data" or complex dataset to yield insights that are greater than the sum of its parts.

"The commission must think carefully about the incentives for policymakers to support evidence-based policy," Ginther said. "Secondly, I recommend a series of experiments be conducted with federal agencies to incorporate evaluation of current programs and research design in new programs in order to evaluate their effectiveness."

In 2016, President Barack Obama signed a law creating the 15-member bipartisan commission charged with examining all aspects of how to increase the availability and use of government data, especially how to integrate administrative and survey data and to make the data available to facilitate research, evaluation, analysis and continuous improvement while protecting privacy and confidentiality.

Ginther said the federal government is grappling with decisions on how to allocate scarce research and development resources to maximize economic growth and development as well as measuring the return on those investments.

Her research has focused on the study of science policy by examining the allocation of grant funding, gender and race/ethnicity differences in academic careers and scientific entrepreneurship and innovation.

Ginther said that while there are often significant barriers for obtaining data for evidence-based policy, there are some success stories, especially when researchers become trusted partners with policymakers. She cited her 2011 study in the journal Science that found black scientists are much less likely to receive National Institutes of Health grants than their white counterparts. In response, NIH leadership announced initiatives to address the findings, including bias and diversity awareness training to improve the NIH peer-review process.

Ginther said the NIH study became possible after difficult work of merging several data sets, largely thanks to Raynard Kington, at the time the NIH's deputy director, initiating the project. She contrasted this with a data-collection project she began in 2004 that still languishes.

"Institutional support yielded immediate data access," she said.

As part of her testimony, Ginther will recommend the commission work with both the NIH and National Science Foundation to develop prototypes for evaluating existing programs and incorporating evaluation into the design of new programs.

For more information or to interview Ginther, contact George Diepenbrock at 785-864-8853 or gdiepenbrock@ku.edu.