Special Session Summary Charting a Public Policy Research Agenda

Joel B. Cohen, University of Florida
[ to cite ]:
Joel B. Cohen (1996) ,"Special Session Summary Charting a Public Policy Research Agenda", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, eds. Kim P. Corfman and John G. Lynch Jr., Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 312.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, 1996      Page 312



Joel B. Cohen, University of Florida

This conference witnessed somewhat of a return to one of ACR's roots: the involvement of the consumer research community in issues affecting consumers' welfare. I had the privilege of organizing sessions featuring William Schultz, Deputy Commissioner for Policy at the Food and Drug Administration and Joan Bernstein, Director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection at the Federal Trade Commission, with the added and much appreciated participation of former FTC Commissioner Andrew Strenio, Lee Peeler (the Bureau's Associate Director, Division of Advertising Practices) and Bill Wilkie.

Bill is particularly representative of the small number of ACR members who have made substantial and continuing contributions to important public policy issues over the years. Such contributions flow from a willingness to tackle substantial issues that don't always fit snugly within a theoretical framework or research paradigm. One has to be prepared to examine them for their own sake, often from several competing perspectives. Moreover, those of us who have worked on such topics recognize that our well-practiced skills at constructing convenient representations of multifaceted problems can lead to research conclusions that may not be taken seriously by policy makers.

Such conceptual framework issues are hardly unique to public policy research. I frequently advise doctoral students at the problem definition stage to act a bit like a person who has acquired a large, wooded tract of land. Before deciding on the shape and structure of the house you are eager to build, it is a good idea to walk the perimeter of your territory to get a good sense of the lay of the land and how you can best accommodate to it. In plainer language, most important research contributions start with a conceptualization that is broad enough to encompass the most meaningful definition of the "problem space." This is what enables the researcher to make sensible choices about factors to be measured and manipulated over a series of studies.

Unfortunately, this implies formidable startup costs for those thinking about contributing meaningful research on public policy issues. This realization is very likely to have stunted the development of a stronger consumer research presence in areas where we are likely to have something meaningful to contribute. One part of the solution to this dilemma requires a helping hand from policy-makers who have the vision to appreciate our field's potential contributions.

The very high level participation of FTC and FDA officials at this conference is intended to signal these agencies' willingness to assist consumer researchers to become more familiar with a variety of issues that these agencies view as important and which are likely to benefit from the various perspectives and research skills we can bring to bear. The immediately following papers by Jodie and Bill are intended to highlight current activities at these agencies, so that consumer researchers who are interested in tackling some of these issues can think further about them and then contact appropriate individuals to help "jump start" such projects. Some of the research topics these agencies would like to see our field address are well-defined and primarily lack good descriptive data. In other cases, consumer researchers can play an important role in helping to contribute to a better understanding of the issues and alternative ways of addressing them. I think you will find many of the research needs highlighted in the accompanying papers to be both meaningful and challenging. Both agencies look forward to inquiries and input from scholars in our field.