Policy commentary and peer review

The psychologist Jay Belsky has a provocative editorial in this morning’s New York Times. For reasons that will be come clear in a moment, I can’t comment on the policies that Belsky advocates. The purpose of this post is to make a point about how policy commentary based on peer-reviewed science ought to be conducted.

Belsky summarizes a set of studies on children’s resilience in development, that is, the degree to which children can be harmed by exposure to adverse environments or, conversely, benefit from nourishing environments. Belsky argues that some children are highly sensitive to this environmental variation while others are not. Moreover, this variation in sensitivity is associated with genetic differences among children. This, Belsky believes, has policy implications:

State, local and federal governments, as well as parents and schools, spend a great deal of money trying to help kids succeed and keep them out of trouble. Research should help us understand why some children come out of development programs with enhanced capabilities and fewer behavioral problems, while others don’t seem to be affected very much — or at all. Eventually, we may be able to identify the children who will benefit the most, and consider investing extra resources in them.

And if we can identify them, this question follows:

Should we seek to identify the most susceptible children and disproportionately target them when it comes to investing scarce intervention and service dollars?

Belsky says we should genotype children to determine the degree to which they would respond to services as part of making decisions about whether to provide them with services.

This is a bold proposal that raises a host of scientific and ethical questions. It is wonderful that The New York Times is publishing editorial commentary on pathbreaking research in child development.

However, readers can’t give these arguments fair consideration because the studies Belsky cites will not be published until next year. Therefore, readers cannot evaluate the strength of the evidence and the degree of support they provide for Belsky’s proffered policy conclusions.

I’m irritated that Belsky is arguing from facts not in evidence. But the more important problem is that any policy discussion his editorial can and should stimulate will be impoverished by its lack of connection to the cited data. Conversely, when the studies do appear, his editorial will likely be forgotten.

There is a norm in science that you do not publicize research before it is published in a peer-reviewed form. New media give us the opportunity for a rich policy discourse with instant connections to science. That opportunity is missed when the norm of waiting for the science is not followed.


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