The Laura and John Arnold Foundation announced a new Request for Proposals (RFP) for low-cost randomized controlled trials (RCTs) designed to build important evidence about “what works” in U.S. social spending. The RFP is available here, and below is brief background information, including examples of previously-funded projects. The Foundation intends to fund all applications that receive a strong rating from the reviewers based on the criteria in the RFP.  

Low-cost randomized controlled trials are a powerful tool for building scientific evidence about “what works” in social spending. Well-conducted RCTs are widely regarded as the most credible method of evaluating whether a social program is effective, but are often assumed to be inherently too expensive and burdensome for practical use in most areas. Recently, however, researchers have shown that, in many instances, high-quality RCTs can be conducted at low cost and minimal burden, addressing a key obstacle to their widespread use. The low cost is achieved by:

  • Embedding random assignment in initiatives that are being implemented anyway as part of usual program operations. RCTs can be embedded in many new or ongoing programs, for example, by using a lottery process – i.e., random assignment – to determine who among those eligible will be offered program services (since available funds are often insufficient to serve everyone who qualifies). 
  • Measuring key study outcomes with administrative data that are already collected for other purposes (e.g., student test scores on state exams, criminal arrest records, and health care expenditures), rather than engaging in original – and often expensive – data collection through interviews or testing.

Prior rounds of the competition succeeded in funding large RCTs with strong designs, carried out by highly-capable researchers, and measuring outcomes of self-evident policy importance. The funded studies include, as illustrative examples: 

  • A large, multi-site RCT of Bottom Line, a program that provides one-on-one guidance to help low-income, first-generation students get into and graduate from college. The study is currently ongoing
  • A large RCT of Multi-Tiered Systems of Supports (MTSS), a schoolwide reform initiative, designed to increase academic achievement and reduce behavioral problems. The study is currently ongoing.
  • A large RCT of English for Advancement, an employment-focused program for adult English language learners that includes language instruction, career coaching, job training, and placement services. The study is currently ongoing

Source: Laura and John Arnold Foundation