We Can’t Be Bought


In his column, “Who’s To Say How Funders Spend Their Money?” (March 29), Gary Rosenblatt asks what is the role of research funders in influencing research results?

I can’t speak for others, but I can testify for Leonard Saxe and myself. Rosenblatt is wrong on the facts. Our funding, mostly in the form of endowments, has no influence on our research findings.

I have been engaged in applied social research since 1956 when I joined Columbia University’s Bureau of Applied Social Research. We never tilted findings. Almost all the bureau’s funds came from corporate entities. Landmark research resulted, often at odds with the sponsor’s interests.

A few years back, Leonard Saxe and I received several million dollars from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to study its flagship program to combat drug and alcohol use. In peer-reviewed publications, we showed that the program failed to meet its goals. Needless to say, the foundation was not pleased, but to their credit its leaders listened and acted on our results. 

With regard to Birthright, early in its development we made a proposal to conduct an evaluation. The funders were hard-nosed and did not want to throw their money away. I told them they were unlikely to see effects. Most social innovations fail, and 10 days, I believed, would not be enough time to produce change. But Birthright began, and we mounted a control-group design. Harvard’s Christopher Winship, a leading methodologist, wrote us to say this was the best evaluation, Jewish or otherwise, he had seen in years. And I was wrong. Birthright changes opinions about Israel and connection to Jewish life both in the short term and up to 10 years later. Try as we might to challenge the data, we cannot make the findings go away. Others, including David Bryfman, are welcome to try.

The bottom line is that Saxe and I cannot be bought. Our goal is to provide rigorous high-quality evidence for policy purposes, regardless of who has funded us. The most important and useful social science projects are longitudinal studies. Our longitudinal data on the Birthright generation provide such longitudinal evidence and are critical for anyone who wishes to understand the future of Jewish life in North America. I welcome scrutiny of data and findings — it’s how the social scientific process operates.

 Distinguished Scholar, Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, Brandeis University

Editor’s Note: The column never stated that funding has a direct influence on research findings. It cited those who believe there may be a link or the appearance of a link.