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Cooperation on impact evaluation research among the Nordic countries?


“A ‘Nordic Academy for Social Intervention Research’ could be a way to strengthen impact evaluation research in the social field in the Nordic countries, including Denmark.” So says Associate Professor Mr Knut Sundell, who is head of the unit for evidence-based practice at the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare.

Finding out which social interventions work, is afforded high priority by the Danish National Centre for Social Research (SFI). Impact evaluation research in the social field is still a relatively new discipline in Denmark. Even though in fact SFI has launched pilot projects about interventions for vulnerable families with young children, we are still lagging behind. In Sweden, they have come a bit further, but we still have to use results from, for example, the UK or the US, and doing so is very helpful in many cases, according to Mr Sundell, who is also Senior Advisor for Social Affairs. As he says,

“Many evidence-based interventions seem to also have an impact outside the context for which they were developed. For example, Functional Family Therapy, Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care and The Incredible Years, all of which were developed in the US, yield almost the same results in Norway and in Sweden.”

Problematic transferability

However, it is important to assess the imported treatment methods unbiasedly, before they are implemented outside their country of origin. Mr Sundell stresses that,

“There are exceptions which call into question how we define transferability. One example is Intensive Case Management for people suffering from serious mental disorders. This intervention has the best impact in societies with poor preventive health efforts, because it increases the number of compulsory admissions to institutions. In such societies, a case manager could make a difference for the client. However, in societies with good preventive efforts, the case manager can only contribute very little”.

The head of evidence-based practice points at three problem areas when assessing the impact of an intervention in a new context. Firstly, the control groups may differ. If, for example, the control group in one context has better resources than the control group in the other context, this will affect the impact.

Secondly, poverty and social instability in society can, in general, influence the impact of a given intervention. In societies characterised by violence and crime, people’s involvement drops and this leads to a weakening of the social control mechanisms. This can affect the impact of a given intervention.

Thirdly, the prevalence of a given problem may differ from society to society.

“If young people in, for example, Scandinavia take relatively few drugs, an intervention against drug abuse among young people, will have a poorer basis for making a noticeable impact. The potential for change is simply smaller,” Mr Sundell explains.

The need for a Nordic Academy

Impact evaluation research is expensive compared with other types of scientific study. This is due, amongst other things, to the fact that impact studies usually require both an intervention group and a control group, and that researchers have to carry out measurements both before and after the intervention. The data collection process therefore stretches over several years. However, this is not the only challenge facing impact evaluation research. Mr Sundell adds,

“We lack researchers who are trained in this type of research. A good impact evaluation requires special competences”. Mr Sundell goes on to introduce an interesting idea,

“The lack of research competences is not merely a Danish problem, it applies to all Nordic countries. And since our societies are organised in relatively the same manner, one solution could be to establish a common Nordic Academy for Social Intervention Research; an academy of the highest scientific calibre where researchers are trained to develop new social interventions and to assess existing and new interventions within the social field. We would need a solid coupling to the international research environment outside the Nordic countries, for example through guest lecturers. Because the best competences are outside the Nordic countries. It would first and foremost be within disciplines such as social work, psychology, pedagogics, public health science, the nursing and care sector, and criminology”.

However, to begin with, the key challenge for establishing a Nordic Academy for Social Intervention Research will be of a more practical nature, according to Mr Sundell. This will be to ensure long-term basic funding and to reach an agreement as to where the academy will be located. For now, at least the idea has been tabled... 

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