Know your problem and don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good: Jon Courtney on the value of applied research

Evaluation Lab News

Posted: Dec 06, 2021 - 12:00am

MPP Community Advisory Board member and NM Legislative Finance Committee Deputy Director, Jon Courtney first became interested in human behavior and research during his childhood in Española, New Mexico. Española has a higher than average substance abuse rate and Dr. Courtney watched his childhood best friend die of an overdose, and he wondered what drives human behavior? Motivated by these experiences, Dr. Courtney earned his PhD in Experimental Psychology.

After graduation he had two career paths available to him: to teach or to work in the field and do research. He advised the students, when considering job opportunities, to really think about the daily activities that the job will entail and whether or not those activities sound interesting. For Dr. Courtney, doing research in the field sounded the most fun, and after graduation he began his career working at the United States Air Force Research Laboratory.

It was at this position that he learned two very important lessons about applied research that he still values today: (1)know your problem and (2) don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. These lessons were driven home for him in 2006 when he was part of a large study doing research to figure out how to find improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Iraq. When his timeline was up he asked if he could have another 4 weeks to fine tune his study and get it where he wanted, the question then was, if we wait a month to deploy this study so it can be perfected-how many people will be killed by IEDs ? The problem statement was: how do you save lives? Not: how do you get your study just right?

Current applied research projects at the Legislative Finance Committee include gun violence and student learning loss due to Covid.  As with the IED study, timing is critical, since only studies completed before the legislative session in January can contribute to legislative initiative in the coming year.  Dr. Courtney encouraged students to consider the large variety of challenges facing the state, and to prioritize evidence-based solutions.