For most, scientific research and humanitarian policy seem to occupy distinctly different niches. Even their methodologies are immensely different: research objectively analyzes problems in isolation, whereas humanitarian policy relies on case studies and theories. At the Economics Center of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, however, researchers at the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) have blurred the lines between research and international development by using research trials—the hard data typically attributed to science—to guide international development policy.

Researchers at J-PAL approach international development policy with an emphasis on evidence acquired through Randomized Control Trials (RCTs). Just as scientists compare treated and untreated groups during drug trials, J-PAL researchers compare experimental and control groups when assessing policies to implement in regions of interest. The rationale is simple: to prevent the immense time, effort, and resources spent implementing humanitarian programs that yield few results, it is imperative to evaluate policy ideas before scaling up such proposals.

During the J-PAL@Ten Conference held on December 7, 2013 in MIT’s Kresge Auditorium, staff, partners, and outside guests from around the world gathered to celebrate J-PAL’s tenth anniversary. A main goal of the conference was to advocate for the use of RCTs in policy and to highlight many of the center’s milestones along the way. Indeed, J-PAL’s guiding ideology has resulted in several compelling successes across the globe. Notable achievements include partnering with the “Deworm the World” Initiative in Kenya after the significant positive effects of deworming on school attendance and academic performance were proven by a J-PAL study. In fact, since J-PAL’s study and subsequent scale-up of “Deworm the World,” over 59 million children have been treated for worms.

Another study refuted the economic argument that distributing bed nets for free reduces their worth in recipients’ minds, decreasing the likeliness of their use. Instead, the study showed that the clinic that was randomly assigned to distribute bed nets for free saw a higher percentage of bed net use among patients than did those clinics that were told to sell the nets at varying costs. The economic barrier of even a small cost was enough to dissuade individuals from purchasing mosquito nets and prevent the positive outcomes of widespread mosquito net use.

Yet another study illustrated that the success of students’ education relied most heavily on “teaching kids what they are able to learn”—in other words, creating a curriculum reflective of the kids’ own capacities—rather than on other more popular beliefs, such as increasing teacher-student ratios. Such studies, along with many others, have not only provided greater quantities of and more detailed evidence to influence current policy, but are also contributing to a growing database of research that can and will surely guide policy for years to come.

Although the conference was largely a celebration of J-PAL’s progress, various outside panelists and speakers discussed the future of J-PAL and its growing impact. Former Chilean Minister of Planning Felipe Kast noted the excessiveness with which ideology governs politics, particularly in Latin America. According to Kast, J-PAL’s evidence-based approach could serve as an important neutral party in political debate. He remarked that J-PAL has contributed to “mak[ing] this way of reasoning [evidence-based policy] part of the process.”

Former Chairman of the US Council of Advisors Alan Krueger noted the divide between academia and government in policy-making that has become especially apparent in the United States, as well as the potential of J-PAL as a tool to bridge that gap. Kruger further acknowledged that there are a significant number of government policies that have had the potential to be studied through randomized trials (about 40-50 percent), yet only around 10 percent have actually carried out such trials. On the one hand, it is much more difficult for the government to generate surveys and other necessary components of RCTs than it is for academia to do the same. On the other hand, such trials are not as high on the agenda for academics because much academic research is not directed toward a particular policy goal. Thus, Krueger declared, there is a need for an institution that sponsors research for the purpose of policy, a need that J-PAL could fill.

However, in order for J-PAL’s ideal of evidence-based policy to truly grow in impact beyond academia, important factors must be considered. First, as Krueger mentioned, is the conflict with some agencies if the results of the research do not turn out in favor of current practices or those that the agency hopes to implement. Former High Commissioner of France Martin Hirsh also pointed out the problem of time; given their term lengths, politicians “want results now, not in three years.” Additionally, Kast highlighted the importance of understanding politics itself. Politicians have several guiding philosophies, he claimed. First, they follow opportunities; next, even more importantly, they are worried about threats; finally, they look to institutions for some form of instruction. In this regard, politicians use stories before they use evidence, meaning “if you do not translate solid evidence into story, politicians will not accept it.”

Yet there is still much promise in making evidence-based policy a meaningful reality in the realm of policy. Krueger emphasized the importance of prioritization: “It is not usual for academics to walk in front of politicians’ offices,” he explained, “they would rather move onto the next paper.” But if J-PAL dedicates itself toward efforts that force policymakers to care, the organization could make an immense impact. MIT professor Michael Greenstone underscored the significance of collaboration, of adapting research to fit policymakers’ goals and “become part of the woodwork.” Hirsh mentioned the idea of creating an evidence-based ranking to influence governments around the world and once again pushed for persistence in bringing evidence-based methodology to policy, leaving the J-PAL audience with the following quote by Gandhi: “First, they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.”