The randomised controlled trial (RCT) is considered a very valuable research design in assessing the effectiveness of public policy interventions (Torgerson and Torgerson 2001), but it is also widely regarded as problematic for evaluating complex interventions of the kind often encountered in education, criminal justice and the wider social sciences. The response to these concerns has been to support the development of a model for complex interventions, calling for the consideration of a fuller research cycle involving theory and in-depth study as well as the trial itself. This has been used successfully as a basis for trials in education and health promotion, and has important similarities to the more recent ‘design experiment' methodology applied to educational innovation (Bannan-Ritland et al. 2006).
A group of researchers based at the University of York has recognised the growing need for wider understanding of the use of trials in public policy, and instituted a supportive collaboration (the York Trials Methods Group) among Departments that are undertaking trials. The group is currently undertaking trials in education, psychology, crime, social work, health studies, and economics. Its collaboration provides mutual support and expertise via meetings and workshops, and has a training function to support the academic development of junior staff within the university.
For example, a trials methods course is run annually for postgraduate students and researchers. The same group is part of the planned setting up of the £20 million ‘Institute for Effective Education' at York .In addition, the group has been tasked, as part of the ESRC Researcher Development Initiative, to offer similar support to social science and public policy researchers on a national basis. Also, by widening our collaboration we increase the likelihood that very large trials involving more than one centre can be undertaken.
The term ‘trials' here is understood very widely, and includes randomised-controlled trials, natural experiments, design studies, and even thought-experiments. Future activities include face-to-face and residential workshops, debates, internet discussions, web-based resources, published protocols in downloadable form, and methodological papers. In order to provide and create these resources, we have assembled a team of experts in the conduct of public policy interventions based across the UK and abroad. Across a range of fields in public policy, we wish to contribute to the growth of the number of researchers who hold mature and reasonable views on the value of rigorous interventions, who can be appropriately critical and appreciative of progress in this area.