Building the Profession’s Research Infrastructure


  • Betsy S. Vourlekis University of Maryland
  • Joan Levy Zlotnik NASW Foundation, Social Work Policy Institute (SWPI)
  • Juan Ramos National Institute of Mental Health
  • Kathleen Ell University of Southern California



Social work research, history, change process


Beginning in 1988, the social work profession undertook a twenty-five year endeavor to enhance its research capacity and to assure greater representation of social work research needs, priorities and findings at the federal level, where major policy initiatives take place. Described here are some of the key processes, highlighting the efforts to achieve professional solidarity, and the interventions, by social workers, federal "insiders" and outside advocacy agents that carried the work forward. Details and accomplishments of this long-term, carefully sustained, and still incomplete professional self-strengthening change strategy provide insights for future collective professional endeavors. Twenty-five years ago the social work profession began a sustained effort to strengthen its research infrastructure in support of demonstrating practice effectiveness, advancing knowledge for critical social problems, and informing national policy. The steps and processes undertaken and the outcomes achieved by this effort have been described elsewhere (Austin, 1998; Corvo, Zlotnik, & Chen, 2008; TFSWR, 1991; Zlotnik, Biegel, & Solt, 2002; Zlotnik & Solt, 2006, 2008). What we want to capture through this, our eye-witness account, are some of the nuanced and specific actions, obstacles, and decisions involved in this effort. Recreating this case study of a profession's self-strengthening change strategy – targeted both to the external environment and its own internal one – can provide insights for future profession-wide, collective efforts.

Author Biographies

Betsy S. Vourlekis, University of Maryland

Ph.D., Professor Emerita at the University of Maryland School of Social Work

Joan Levy Zlotnik, NASW Foundation, Social Work Policy Institute (SWPI)

Ph.D., Director of the Social Work Policy Institute (SWPI), a think tank established in the NASW Foundation

Juan Ramos, National Institute of Mental Health

Ph.D., Past Division Director, National Institute of Mental Health

Kathleen Ell, University of Southern California

DSW, MSW, Ernest P. Larson Professor of Health, Ethnicity, and Poverty in the School of Social Work at the University of Southern California