This paper explores common policy and research responses to finding that an intervention is ineffective or harmful, such as dismissing the results, decommissioning the intervention, continuing with the ‘failed’ intervention in the absence of a better option or because it meets other criteria, and adapting the intervention and testing those adaptations. Some of these responses are illustrated through brief case studies of null effect trials conducted by the authors in subject areas such as obesity, social-emotional learning and early years support. Each case study describes the trial results, what happened next and, as best as can be established, why.
The paper suggests that the nature of each stakeholder’s response(s) is affected by, inter alia, the nature of the ‘failure’, how much they have invested in the intervention (financially, psychologically, politically and organisationally), the extent to which they accept the trial findings, the availability (or lack) or alternatives, and whether they buy into the evidence-based practice paradigm.
The paper concludes by advancing several strategies to promote a more open and honest approach towards trials of interventions that show null or harmful effects. These strategies are categorized as ‘pre-empting’, ‘preparing for’, ‘acknowledging’ and ‘responding to’ such findings. The main message from the symposium is that the real failure in prevention science is a failure to learn from and act on disappointing results.