All of us--whether educators, researchers, health care providers, or just taxpayers--want to know that our time, effort, and money are well spent and will bring the results we desire. And the same can be said for the vast number of programs and activities carried out by schools, research institutions, community organizations, and state and federal agencies.
"While we hope that programs are selected for and survive using rational criteria, in many situations they probably survive because people like them, get used to them, or because institutional, political, or economic forces favor their survival," said William Trochim.
Trochim is a professor in the college's Department of Policy Analysis and Management and a national leader in designing evaluation systems that help assess how programs function and examine whether they are actually accomplishing their intended goals. He is leading an innovative effort to develop evaluation approaches that are based on evolutionary theory from the life sciences. Trochim argues that evaluation can play a key role in both developing program variations and in providing feedback that influences selection, just as natural selection does in biological evolution.
"Like evolutionary theory, evaluation can encourage program managers, decision-makers, and policymakers to use a 'trial-and-error' approach to evolving better programs that have a greater 'fitness' to their environment," he said. Trochim is creating such evolutionary evaluation systems and testing them in real-world contexts.
The ecology of science
Trochim's work is at the intersection of science and human ecology.
"We live in a dynamic world, with complex systems of human organizations," he said. "I am an ecological systems thinker, and evaluation is a central human ecological function. It is essential to learning, because evaluation provides feedback about whether and how the things we create actually work."
As we look to science to try to solve the major problems our society faces, Trochim said we need to realize that "basically, science is a human social endeavor--and that is where human ecology becomes absolutely essential to its success in the 21st century."
Trochim, who has been on the Human Ecology faculty since 1980, has many roles at the college and beyond. He directs the Cornell Office for Research on Evaluation (CORE), a team that includes CORE manager Claire Hebberd and that works to develop evaluation systems for large and complex organizations and scientific endeavors. Trochim is the director of evaluation for the new Clinical and Translational Science Center, based at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. He is also the director of evaluation for Extension and Outreach at Cornell, as well as the principal investigator on a new grant to develop the next generation of evaluation approaches for assessing and improving science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education and outreach programs funded by the National Science Foundation. Currently, Trochim is also serving as president of the American Evaluation Association.
"My life is a continuous triangle trip between Ithaca, New York, and Washington," he said with a laugh.
From basic biomedical science to the bedside and beyond
In the last few years it has become clear that massive investments in biomedical research have not translated into desired health outcomes, according to Trochim. On average, it takes 17 years from the time a new medical treatment or device is discovered until it's used widely in practice and "that's almost certainly a lower-end estimate."
"That's a system problem," he said. "We have systems of researchers and systems of health care practitioners, but we haven't been successful in connecting them effectively." Earlier on, biomedical researchers attempted to better disseminate the information about new discoveries--"we shouted louder," as Trochim put it--but that didn't significantly improve the time it took to move discoveries from lab bench to bedside and beyond to health impacts. …