[Excerpt] The Department of Labor’s performance goal for the Bureau of International Labor Affairs (ILAB) is to improve worker rights and livelihoods for vulnerable populations. The Office of Trade and Labor Affairs’ (OTLA) research program seeks to further the knowledge base on worker rights and livelihoods so as to better inform the development of sound policies and programs to achieve them. ILAB’s support for research indicates that it recognizes that it needs new tools and new understanding to further its performance goal; that it needs to assess its existing tools; and that if it was fully known how to universally ensure worker rights or sustain livelihoods, those objectives would have already been met.
One strategy through which OTLA seeks to generate new knowledge is by funding a contract research program. One role for funded research is to bring more expert and rigorous information directly into ILAB. Another is to incentivize the external research community to take on worker rights and livelihoods issues as on-going research agendas. One paper rarely settles an issue. Instead, a paper usually is a stop on a longer road map to understanding. Our limited funding is most effective when it starts researchers on the journey, or keeps them going on it. We learn some things at the particular stop that we fund, but ideally we learn much more by following the journey the researchers follow in subsequent projects.
OTLA places particular emphasis on research that helps explain individual or institutional behavior. Empirical research that is connected to a well-developed theory and seeks to identify the causal behavioral channels through which a policy or program intervention may be expected to have its impact is especially valuable, because well explained evidence is convincing in a specific context, and a well-developed theory generates more confidence that specific results have potential to be generalizable to other populations and problems.