J-PAL's response to Covid-19
- Covid Dialogues: Cash Grants to Support Female Entrepreneurs (April 22, 2021)
- Covid Dialogues: Labor Markets and Covid-19 Recovery Brown Bag (February 17, 2021)
- Covid Dialogues: Supporting Working Women During Covid-19 (January 21, 2021)
Frequently asked questions
What is the status of research projects in the field that are implemented or funded by J-PAL?
All in-person survey activities at J-PAL offices were halted on March 17, 2020. J-PAL research staff worked with primary investigators to determine if survey work could be shifted to online or phone surveys and pivoted to make those changes where possible. Work that can be done from home by research assistants continues. Planned or new studies involving in-person programs or surveys are on hold until further notice.
Actions taken for studies funded by a J-PAL initiative and not implemented by J-PAL:
J-PAL initiatives fund many studies in which the research is not implemented directly by J-PAL staff. In such cases where the researcher is not based at the J-PAL initiative’s host university (e.g. MIT), MIT cedes IRB approval to the researcher’s university.
In response to Covid-19, MIT declared in March, "Human subject research which requires in-person contact needs to be suspended. This applies not only to campus, but also in field work. Virtual interaction is permitted. Human subject research should be limited to analysis of data already collected and researchers must cease work that requires interactions with human subjects.” Thus, any studies for which MIT’s IRB is the IRB of record, or any of the researchers on the study are based at MIT, were required to halt any project activities that create in-person contacts with human subjects that would not have occurred in the absence of the project.
For studies for which the IRB of record is not at MIT, and no MIT faculty or staff are involved as co-investigators, the rules and guidance of the lead researcher’s university and the study’s IRB continue to guide their activities. Lead researchers are requested to actively obtain guidance from the IRB of record and from their university and follow that guidance on whether field work can restart or continue to remain on hold.
Even in these cases, J-PAL strongly urges all researchers to follow J-PAL’s practice and continue to halt all activities that could contribute to the spread of Covid-19. In cases in which field work is continued, we request that the study obtain the advice of a public health expert on mitigating efforts that reduce the risk of infection, such as ensuring surveyors are practicing social distancing, providing sick leave for surveyors with Covid symptoms, and halting surveying if the respondent appears sick.
In March, J-PAL requested that the lead researchers of all studies funded by a J-PAL initiative report by March 20 on IRB guidance for their study and the actions they have taken in response to Covid-19. We also requested that all researchers and staff on such projects follow the guidance of their respective governments and employer institutions on travel, working from home, and holding any meetings or events.
Changes to RFPs and reporting requirements on initiative-funded studies:
We are keenly aware of the tremendous disruptions our affiliates and invited researchers are facing due to closed universities, delayed proposal approvals, additional work needed to transition classes online, research staff who may no longer be available, and field work that stands suspended. In response, we took four steps effective March 17:
- J-PAL initiatives with spring 2020 proposal deadlines extended their timelines by at least thirty days.
- All reporting requirements for ongoing initiative-funded projects due in the next sixty days were extended by an additional sixty days.
- J-PAL will be flexible on requests on no-cost extensions for projects currently in the field.
Is funding available for new studies to fight Covid-19?
Seven J-PAL initiatives opened dedicated off-cycle rounds for proposals from J-PAL affiliates and invited researchers. The initiatives sought to fund rapid, useful, and responsible research that is relevant to Covid-19 response, mitigation, and recovery. Over the spring and summer of 2020, J-PAL funded 34 research proposals for a total of $1,524,842. While our initiatives are no longer accepting off-cycle proposals, researchers are encouraged to submit Covid-related proposals to J-PAL initiatives through regular cycle rounds.
What are the adverse impacts of Covid-19 on J-PAL?
While our problems are small compared to what the world is facing, we are far from immune to the economic impact of the pandemic. In addition to the adverse impacts on our field operations and research pipeline, our in-person training courses, and our scale-up work, we have had to freeze staff salaries and leave many key staff positions unfilled.
Despite identifying emergency funding from a generous donor to keep more than 1,200 J-PAL survey staff on salary for eight weeks after the shutdown started, when the funding was unfortunately exhausted, we were forced to lay off these valuable members of our team until field research can safely re-start.
As the full effect of the economic crisis comes to bear later, we expect more aspects of our organization to be impacted. We are grateful to our staff who have continued to work so hard despite these adversities and our funders whose support allows us to continue on our mission of reducing poverty using science.
How has J-PAL adapted its training and policy activities?
As the Covid-19 pandemic took hold, we suspended all in-person policy outreach events and meetings and moved many trainings and course offerings online. We transitioned our Cambridge-based in-person Evaluating Social Programs course to a series of open-access webinars. And given the urgent need for training in evidence-informed decision-making during the pandemic, we waived all course participant fees, drawing hundreds of new participants.
Our South Asia and North America research staff trainings were held virtually for the first time, with regularly scheduled sessions spread out over several weeks.
We transitioned our Innovations in Data Experimentation and Action (IDEA) Initiative conference online as a series of webinars accompanying the release of our new Handbook on Using Administrative Data for Research and Evidence-based Policy.
We launched a new virtual event series, Covid Dialogues, to showcase relevant evidence to inform response and recovery policies. Topics covered include increasing uptake of preventive measures, supporting working women, and helping children catch up in school.
We have also converted our flagship Evaluating Social Programs course (J-PAL 101x) course to be self-paced, allowing learners to complete the course at their own speed.
How is J-PAL crowdsourcing and disseminating ideas for safe research in the face of Covid-19?
Given the slow pace of the global vaccine rollout, the need for urgent research, and to identify opportunities for our survey staff to be safely and productively engaged, we crowdsourced best practices and tips on switching from in-person to online or phone surveys and posted them on our website. Our research team compiled further resources for adapting to phone surveys, with guides that span from budgeting to remote trainings to quality assurance best practices.
We also reflected on the foundations of ethical and high-quality data collection during the Covid-19 pandemic. Additional guidance on conducting safe, high-quality, and ethical research can be found in our recently updated library of research resources.
Tavneet Suri (MIT; Scientific Director, J-PAL Africa; Co-Chair J-PAL Agriculture sector) also shared insights on transitioning a large-scale survey on the effects of universal basic income in Kenya from in-person to phone interviews in a March 2020 webinar, with a focus on shortening and adapting questionnaires to be conducted via phone.