April 27, 2023

Visiting Scholar: Q&A with Debra Hevenstone

The Evans School welcomes Professor Debra Hevenstone from the Bern University of Applied Sciences in Switzerland, as a Visiting Scholar for Spring Quarter 2023. Debra, who received her Ph.D. in the joint Sociology-Public Policy Program at the University of Michigan, sat down with the Evans School when she arrived in mid-April.

Evans School: Welcome to Seattle and the Evans School!  Tell us a little about your research program and current projects.

Debra: Great to be here! This is an exciting time because I am at a critical juncture with respect to projects. In the past few years, I had several big projects which are mostly being wrapped up. One study funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNF) looked at how a reduction in Swiss unemployment insurance entitlement impacted divorce, health, employment, and poverty differentially depending on family circumstances. A second SNF project (not yet published!) looks at the Swiss child penalty, the reduction in earnings experienced by women upon having their first child, examining the extent to which it can be explained by part-time work, the standard working model for Swiss mothers. Another project funded by the Swiss Network for International Studies looked at Social Impact Bonds, a newish way to fund social services that involves investors. The project goal was to estimate the counterfactual impact of financing. The project brought up a lot of questions for me beyond the published results about how scientific paths of inquiry are set and about efficiency in social policy provision.

Looking forward, I am planning a project examining how Hackathons, multi-day volunteer events where digital or technical prototypes are developed, might be used as labor market integration tools for high-skill refugees to integrate at-level, an area where few interventions have been found to be effective. of the project will also use Hackathons as a sort of laboratory in market design, testing whether deferred acceptance algorithms can be used to create stable and inclusive teams.

Evans School: Your work has clear real-world policy application. How do you connect your research findings to policy and practice?

Debra: This is one of the things that is most important to me in my work. The interplay between empiricism and practice became a focus for me when I was a college student, and read a lot of Dewey and Rorty in a philosophy class on pragmatism. I try to integrate in my projects not just a one-way science communication, but an exchange. For example, within the SNF project on unemployment we hosted an end-event called “Dialogue between research and policy: An interactive workshop about work, family, and social policy,” where we brought together policy makers (from all levels of government), leaders of non-profits, and academics. For our project on the Swiss child penalty, we presented our results not only at academic conferences, but also at the Swiss Federal Social Insurance Office. To be totally honest, when it comes to the exchange between research and practice – I am constantly learning what works.

Evans School: That is an important observation that resonates across our research community. One of your new project ideas focuses on comparing social policy across European and North American federal systems. This project is in its earliest stages, but what core questions are guiding your inquiry?

Debra: As you say, this project is at the very beginning stages. When I was a young analyst at the Brookings Institution, I worked for a political scientist studying the devolution of U.S. welfare cash assistance. Back then I felt like devolution just introduced unnecessary inequities—I was not convinced by arguments about “laboratories of democracy.” But over the decades I have seen many cases where I think federalism has advantages – like in our study of social impact bonds (SIBs) we saw more fiscal constraint in our Swiss SIB, where policy choices were local, compared to our UK case where key choices were federal – with qualitative research suggesting it was about political accountability. I am hoping to take the case of childcare subsidies, where there is variability over time and space in state versus local control and look at the negative effects of devolution (inequality in support or access and discontinuous or downward sloping benefit reduction rates) versus the positives (fiscal constraint and adjustment to local conditions).

Evans School: While in residence at UW, you will be collaborating with Social Work and Evans adjunct faculty to connect social work students in Bern and Seattle. Please share how you and Jennie will facilitate learning across these two different social and political settings.

Debra: My university is encouraging digital exchange classes in a particular format called COIL, where students first meet in a few sessions all together, then work in small mixed-nationality groups, and finally rejoin at the end of the semester presenting their work. The idea is that we can have an environmentally friendly academic and cultural exchange, with students only flying for longer semester or year-long exchanges. This is important as our shorter exchanges are being geographically limited: no more travels outside of Europe. Jennie and I are going to do a single session exchange to test how it works. The Swiss and American students will read the same or similar materials, and then we will meet for an online seminar. Depending on student feedback following the exchange, I am hoping we might develop a semester-long course. This is, however, not such a simple thing. Administratively there must be similar course needs in the two locations, and then there is the question of whether students can really exchange on a long-term joint international project on-line. And then I wonder if such a course could be a first step towards an exchange agreement. This is hard for us in Switzerland, as a few students would want to visit the US, but the US universities – even state schools – are just too expensive comparatively. Anyhow, the potential positive is big, so it’s worth a try, right? I also think the Swiss students would like the Pacific Northwest – related to the next question!

Evans School: Exciting work!  Last question – what kind of adventures do you and your family hope to have while in the Pacific Northwest this spring and summer?

Debra: We are really thrilled to be in the Pacific Northwest!! We are planning camping in the San Juan Islands and Olympic Peninsula. Maybe an outing to Portland and Mount Rainier. I have fond memories of climbing around Leavenworth, but I think my daughter is still too young for that. Locally I am really excited to show my daughter the Ballard locks in June when the fish start to run, and we have already enjoyed the Burke Gillman trail. My husband is really excited about the biking around Seattle while I am working – and I am jealous! The nature here is just breathtaking and it is a privilege to be here.

Evans School: Sounds like you have a wonderful spring ahead! Welcome to our community!

Debra: Thanks!