Robyn Stone: Looking Back on a 40-Year Research Career

CFAR | November 20, 2017

Robyn Stone reflected on her 40-year career after being awarded the 2016 Maxwell A. Pollack Award for Productive Aging by the Gerontological Society of America.

LeadingAge Senior Vice President of Research Robyn Stone sat down this summer with Brian W. Lindberg, policy advisor to the Gerontological Society of America (GSA), to talk about her 40-year career in the field of aging services research. The interview took place after Stone, the 2016 winner of the Maxwell A. Pollack Award for Productive Aging, presented the Pollack Award Lecture at the IAGG World Congress of Gerontology and Geriatrics in San Francisco.

Here are a few highlights from Stone’s interview with Lindberg, which was published in the September 2017 and October 2017 editions of Gerontology News.

Linking Research, Policy and Practice

Stone began the interview by describing the primary goal of her Pollack Award Lecture: to show young researchers that they can link research, policy and practice, just as she did during a career that took her to government, policy and practice environments.

“I always kept the applied research focus,” Stone recalled. “It is not a usual career for researchers or different members of the gerontology field. But I think it’s a very exciting way to think about using (our) jobs. In my talk, I was trying to get young people to think a little bit out of the box in terms of opportunities there might be for applied research, rather than just an academic or research track.”

The Long Research Road

Stone has spent the past 10 years exploring models that link affordable housing and services. Such long research timeframes make it necessary for applied researchers to share their interim findings with policy makers and practitioners “who can’t wait 10 years ... to use what we learn,” she said.

The lengthy research process also requires that applied researchers take a long-term view of their work, and remember that they often are dealing with “old wine in new bottles,” said Stone.

“The Congregate Housing Services Program and the Section 202 program were really the precursors to what we’re talking about now,” she said about her housing plus services research. “The risk of losing the 202 program inspired us to not only try to save (Section 202), but to look at a new version of it (that would) help people to age in their community successfully. These (housing plus services) models are really variations on old themes.”

Getting Research into the Mainstream

Stone recalled her participation in the research that supported the U.S. Bipartisan Commission on Comprehensive Health Care, called the Pepper Commission, and the health care reform task force, both of which were launched during the Clinton Administration.

“Both were very much based on doing very good research to create policy options,” she said. “We had some very good researchers, especially on the long-term care side, which I was heading up. (Having) those researchers coming together with policy people and then talking with real world implementers, that was essential.”

Researchers still need to be involved in this type of collaboration, said Stone. The National Academy of Sciences (NAM) is advancing that collaboration through policy forums and other types of applied activities that bring researchers, policy makers and practitioners together around important issues, she said.

“I think the ability of researchers to be at the table with other stakeholders is really, really important,” said Stone, who was elected to NAM several years ago. “We can’t stay in our ivory towers. We need to actually mingle with these other folks and understand their language, because your average policy person will not understand the research findings without some translation. I think having a language to speak to policy makers and key stakeholders is very important and … we continue to learn how to do it most effectively.”

The Importance of Partnerships

Stone also touted the important role that public-private partnerships can play in launching demonstration programs and evaluations.

“Researchers need to be thinking about multiple funders because the governmental (funding) sources are more and more constrained,” she said. “The philanthropic sources (of funding) are also probably going to be even more stretched because of shrinking governmental investment.”

Stone lamented these investment declines, including the loss of Title IV of the Older Americans Act, which provided needed research dollars for demonstration programs that led to the creation of new models of care and services.

“The aging network now is being put through a lot more scrutiny in terms of how it is producing outcomes and return on investment, particularly related to opportunities for aging services providers to be integrated with health care systems,” said Stone. “If we had invested over the years in rigorous assessment, I think we would be further along.”

Research at LeadingAge

Lindberg characterized Stone’s role at LeadingAge as “unique” because, he said, she works in a nonprofit world but must align her “facts matter” approach with “membership demands and policy considerations.”

“I think that the leadership at LeadingAge was very prescient in offering me the opportunity to put our group together 18 years ago,” responded Stone. “There was a recognition and support for an applied research group that really viewed the membership as natural laboratories for learning more about what works and what doesn’t work for the continuum of care and services.”

“There are very few organizations that have our type of (research) structure embedded,” she added. “I think that’s valuable, and I congratulate LeadingAge’s leadership for recognizing the importance of this activity.”

Lessons Learned

Stone concluded her interview by sharing 7 lessons she has learned about research during her career.

“First, it is not easy,” she said. “It is very difficult! But it is worth the struggle to get to the point where your work is being applied and lives are being affected.

“Second, the language, goals and timeframes of the various stakeholders are often very different, (and) need to be acknowledged and addressed.

Third, a multi-faceted, quantitative and qualitative research approach is key, in concert with the stories that they validate.

“Fourth, collaborations from the start are optimal, including a clear plan for evaluation.

“Fifth, recognition that we are often exploring old wine in new bottles is essential.

“Sixth, learning from mistakes is as important as learning from successes — the null hypothesis is a finding!

“And last, we must have the long-term view.”