J-PAL's response to Covid-19
Frequently asked questions
What is the status of research projects in the field that are implemented by J-PAL?
Many of our affiliates and invited researchers had already heard by March 9th from the J-PAL office they work with on a field project to discuss adjustments to field survey and project activities. Depending on the situation in each country, several offices have already taken steps to limit the exposure of subjects, surveyors, and field staff. For some projects, J-PAL had the week prior halted the start of new data collection or interrupted ongoing field work. For field work that was still continuing—mostly in areas that are not currently strongly affected—J-PAL offices took steps to ensure good hygiene and monitoring. Till now our focus had been to provide broad guidance to regional offices with flexibility to adapt measures to local conditions.
By March 16th, it was clear that the much faster and wider spread of the virus, and the increased advice of our host universities and local governments necessitated the immediate halt all project activities that create contacts between staff or program implementation staff and human subjects that would not have occurred in the absence of the project. As I mentioned, many project activities have already been curtailed or suspended already. All survey activities at J-PAL offices on remaining projects were halted on Tuesday, March 17th AM (local time zones). Field staff had up to Thursday, March 19th PM (local time zones) to hand in all materials. J-PAL research staff is actively work with primary investigators (PIs) to determine if survey work can be shifted to online or phone surveys. Work that can be done from home by RAs continues.
Planned or new projects will continue to stay on hold until further notice. If the project is being implemented by a J-PAL office, the project staff is in touch with PIs to work on how field activities should be adjusted and how they can use phones or online tools. J-PAL’s senior management team is convening every Monday morning EST to review the situation on the ground and the official advice from local health authorities and host universities to update our guidance on a rolling two-week basis.
One of our top priorities is to try and do the best we can for our 1,200 project surveyors whose dedicated work and effort is such an important part of what we do every day. These surveyors are contract employees hired to work directly on individual field projects. To mitigate the impact of this shut down that is beyond not just our, but anyone’s control, we mobilized additional resources to provide them with six weeks of wages beyond the suspension of field work.
What off-cycle proposals for projects are available to fight Covid-19?
In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, many 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. Initiatives are accepting proposals through a common application here. Please note that funding is only available for J-PAL affiliates and invited researchers. Examples of projects eligible for funding are for:
- Evaluate interventions aimed at Covid-19 responses or the recovery from the pandemic.
- Add-on modules to existing randomized evaluations to collect data on Covid-19.
- Add a treatment arm to an existing study related to responses to Covid-19.
- Conduct a survey following up on a completed randomized evaluation to measure the impacts of the intervention on interactions with Covid-19 responses.
As of September 21, 2020, J-PAL initiatives have received 59 off-cycle proposals and 5 regular cycle Covid-19-related proposals for a total of $3,038,059. We have funded 34 proposals for a total of $1,546,176. Many more are currently under review. The breakdown of proposals received by initiative is the following:
- CaTCH - 2 proposals received for $39k in funding
- CRRI – 1 proposal received
- CVI - 7 proposals received for $356k in funding; 6 proposals funded for $263k
- DigiFI - 3 proposals received for $489k in funding; 2 proposals funded for $373k
- GI - 1 proposal received for $70k in funding (note: The proposal corresponds to GI’s regular round; GI does not have a Covid off-cycle round)
- IGI - 13 proposals received for $378k in funding requests; 7 proposals funded for $179k
- JOI - 22 proposals received for $881k in funding; 9 proposals funded for $372k
- PPE – 14 proposals received for $678k in funding; 9 proposals funded for $319k (note: three proposals are from PPE’s regular round)
- SPRI - 2 proposals received for $98k in funding
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 Covid-19. Almost all our field operations have stayed shut worldwide since March and the research pipeline has also been adversely impacted. All our in-person training courses and our scale-up work that requires in-person contact have been suspended. This has benched dozens of staff worldwide and also threatened the completion of many ongoing field projects (either because the underlying program implementation may not happen again, or the budget may not last a prolonged shut down).
And we have had some significant committed funding being put on hold by donors due to the economic impact of the Great Lockdown on them. This includes funding for scale up and research in many critical sectors in developing countries.
As a result of all this, we have had to freeze staff salaries, delay many long-planned promotions, and leave many key open positions unfilled. We were able to identify emergency funding to keep more than 1,600 J-PAL survey staff on payroll for eight weeks after the shutdown started and project funding was suspended. We also moved many of our projects to phone surveys wherever possible Unfortunately not all projects can do remote surveying and the funding eventually ran out as the lockdowns have dragged on way past 8 weeks. We were therefore forced to lay off more than 1,000 incredibly valuable and talented members of our team worldwide until field research can safely re-start. This is the largest layoff in J-PAL’s history.
As the full economic effect of the Great Lockdown comes to bear over the next year or longer, we expect more aspects of our organization to be impacted.
What is the status of Training and Policy activities?
All events, meetings, and visits related to policy outreach, training, and communications also stand suspended for now throughout all J-PAL offices worldwide. This includes standalone activities of J-PAL’s policy and training verticals (e.g. Executive Education in June), as well as on individual research projects (e.g. training of implementation partner staff on a research project, or a matchmaking event committed to as part of a grant). Almost all our donors have written to us offering support and flexibility in managing program deliverables and we are grateful for that.
In response to the indefinite postponement of our in-person Evaluating Social Programs executive education course in Cambridge, we offered a free webinar series during the originally scheduled course dates. These webinars provided an introduction to why and how randomized evaluations can be used to rigorously measure social impact, and recordings of each session are available here.
We are working to take as many of our trainings and events online as possible. For example, rather than hosting the Innovations in Data Experimentation and Action (IDEA) Initiative Conference that was to take place in April, we will instead relaunch it in fall 2020 as a series of webinars to accompany the release of an upcoming handbook for working with administrative data. Chapters will be presented in a weekly series of webinars open to researchers, data practitioners, and students who work with or are interested in administrative data. We hope to drive an increase in participation and attendance through transitioning these presentations online.
In response to the postponement of our in-person Evaluating Social Programs Executive Education course and the demand we’ve seen for online training materials, we have moved up the next run of our online Evaluating Social Programs course (J-PAL 101x) to begin on April 28. For the first time, the course was 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 incredible uncertainty of how long the current shutdowns will last, a growing worry that this is the new norm till a vaccine is made widely available later this year, the need to do urgent anti-Covid-19 research, and to make sure we find opportunities for our survey staff to be safely and productively engaged, it is important that we not wait but innovate on how we can resume our research operations, wherever possible, in a way that is safe for the surveyors, respondents and the communities we live in.
We are crowdsourcing from our network of researchers and staff, and partner organizations, best practices/tips on switching from in-person to surveying online or via phone (especially in asking surveyors to call from their home rather than a central location) and sharing them in a “living” resource on our website, accessible here. If you have experience conducting surveys online or via phone we request that you please fill out this very short form. From this page, you will be able soon access the shared learning.
On Tuesday, March 24th, Tavneet Suri (MIT; Scientific Director, J-PAL Africa; Co-Chair J-PAL Agriculture sector), shared insights via webinar on transitioning a large-scale survey on the effects of universal basic income in Kenya from in-person to phone interviews, with a focus on shortening and adapting questionnaires to be conducted via phone.