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When Research Collides with Politics

Sanford professors on challenges and rewards of politically engaged research

Phil Cook talks about his experiences in applying his gun research to public policy debates. Leoneda Inge of WUNC-FM moderated the discussion. Photo by Steve Hartsoe.
Phil Cook talks about his experiences in applying his gun research to public policy debates. Leoneda Inge of WUNC-FM moderated the discussion. Photo by Steve Hartsoe.

When gun-policy researcher Philip Cook discovered that the much-heralded Brady law requiring background checks on gun purchases had not reduced homicide rates, he faced a dilemma.

Billy Pizer faced a similar challenge when his studies of climate change economics made its way into political discourse.

Both Sanford School professors received a lesson in what faculty members can expect when their data collides with politics. The dilemma can discourage scholars from using their research in politically charged discussions, but at a forum held Friday by Duke's Forum for Scholars & Publics, both Cook and Pizer explained why they embrace public engagement.

Cook's years of research had shown, for instance, that the availability of guns affected how likely a gun would be used in committing a crime and that the type of gun also made a difference.

But this time, the evidence showed the 1994 Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act had no statistically discernable effect on reducing gun deaths.

Cook knew his findings would be subjected to partisan politics, but he decided the importance of contributing factual data to the debate outweighed other considerations.

"I decided the answer was yes, this is an important part of the discussion," Cook said. "It's not been my purpose in my research to provide support for one side or the other."

The hope on such occasions is to "get it out there so it's interpreted right and I can manage the interpretation," said Cook, who began teaching at Duke in 1973.

Pizer, an associate professor whose expertise is in environmental law, regulation and policy, shared his experiences in climate change policy.

"I almost think myself more as an engineer than a researcher," said Pizer, who is also a faculty fellow at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solution. "I am not really trying create evidence for climate change, (whether it is) a problem or not. My emphasis has been on, 'How do we deal with it.'"

Pizer said getting people to change their behavior is among the cheapest ways to curb climate change, but it's also extremely difficult.

Unlike gun issues, Pizer said it is harder to convince people about the effects of climate change because they "don't really see results."

"Climate change has never been a party issue," said Pizer, who came to Duke in fall 2011 to help design and lead a university-wide initiative on energy and the environment. "Generally, it's been a regional issue with states (that are) more likely to suffer being more concerned about it."

Prior to Duke, he served from 2008 to 2011 as deputy assistant secretary for environment and energy in the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

Cook, an honorary fellow in the American Society of Criminology and a member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, said academics "aspire to play the role of neutral arbitrator."

"I think we're still citizens and we have a right to send contributions and speak up and vote. I think the goal is to keep that separate as much as possible."

"To a remarkable degree academia is where you can find some degree of detachment, a detachment to go" where the evidence takes you, Cook added. "It's very hard to get advocates to accept that."