Director’s Corner: Farewell from Nancy Rodriguez

January 13, 2017

It is with tremendous pride and an array of emotions that I write my last Director's Corner. It has been an honor and privilege to serve as the NIJ Director over the past two years, where I have dedicated my time to advancing NIJ’s mission and promoting the importance of crime and justice research. I am humbled to have served President Obama, his Administration, and an extraordinary group of individuals here at NIJ.

Our Nation’s criminal justice system faces numerous challenges.... Despite these challenges, I am hopeful ... because science will continue to be the vehicle through which we determine whether criminal justice policy goals and objectives are being met and are having the desired impact.

As I reflect on my tenure as Director and the future of NIJ, I am struck by what brought me to this place: a deep passion for science and its role in informing policy and practice. Our Nation’s criminal justice system faces numerous challenges, and there are many discussions about the future direction of criminal justice policy. Despite these challenges, I am hopeful. I am hopeful because science will continue to be the vehicle through which we determine whether criminal justice policy goals and objectives are being met and are having the desired impact.

The importance of science today cannot be overstated. Put simply, the science community is needed. In many jurisdictions throughout the country, criminal justice executives are forced to make decisions without evidence-based knowledge.

When police chiefs, correctional administrators, prosecutors, or victim advocates seek to enhance their policies and practices, they need research to inform their next steps and guide their decision-making. It is my hope that an increasing number of them will use science to advance their agencies and persist in asking questions for which they don't know the answers.

Criminal justice practitioners can assume a key role in creating knowledge in areas where there isn’t any research to date. I call on them to be vocal about their research needs while recognizing that the evidence base in certain crime and justice areas is very thin or nonexistent. Given my experience at NIJ, I am very hopeful that an increasing number of criminal justice practitioners will embrace this role and support the pursuit of the scientific enterprise.

I arrived at NIJ deeply committed to continue the path set forward by John Laub, while also bringing my own vision during an extraordinary time in history for our justice system. By focusing on the direct impact of our research investments and working closely with criminal justice professionals, we created a path forward for NIJ that has at its core, the relevance of science to the field. The NIJ leadership team and every single employee spent a significant amount of time developing forward-thinking strategies for our investments, and I can’t thank my NIJ family enough for their hard work.

I am tremendously proud of what we have been able to achieve in a relatively short amount of time. Our efforts to take a multidisciplinary perspective to all our work, which capitalizes on the broad expertise of all scientists, not only recognizes the complexities of issues and challenges facing our communities and the criminal justice system, but also requires scientists to acknowledge that not one single researcher or discipline has all the answers. Today, to be a resource to the criminal justice field and most effectively prevent and reduce crime, we must lower our disciplinary walls and work together.

For the first time in NIJ history, the agency has created multiyear strategic research plans in the areas of safety, health, and wellness; policing; corrections; and sentinel events. These strategic plans are extremely important as they convey our long-term commitment to develop and expand knowledge in these key areas, while working with federal partners, foundations, and other science agencies to align our funding in these and other areas of research.

My long-standing commitment to supporting young scholars and to diversity and inclusion has led to the expansion of existing grant programs, such as the Research Assistantship Program, the Graduate Research Fellowship, and the W.E.B. Du Bois Fellowship Program. Under my leadership, we also created the New Investigator/Early Career Program to support young scholars in their research endeavors. Without these funding opportunities, we are limited in our capacity to build the next generation of researchers and to fill critical gaps in knowledge.

My own experience as a researcher shaped our discussions and efforts around researcher-practitioner partnerships and the translation of research to practice. As the science agency within the U.S. Department of Justice, it is important that we support researchers and practitioners who work together to advance our justice system. Also, scientists must view the practitioner community as important users of the knowledge they create and should take steps to reach this audience. That is why we have made those activities integral pieces in each of our solicitations. These efforts align with the activities supported by our federal partners and highlight their importance to our work.

I am pleased to have implemented an agency realignment and various operational changes to increase our efficiency as a science agency. NIJ’s intellectual community is one where all staff contribute to successfully advance our mission. From those that oversee our budget and operations, to those that work to develop our solicitations and engage with the field, to the key grant management personnel, and, of course, the communications team that disseminates our work to the outside world, it is a collaboration unlike any other.

I want to thank Howard Spivak, MD, Principal Deputy, for sharing my vision and executing on every objective we set out to achieve. He works tirelessly for this agency; therefore, it gives me great joy to know he will continue to advance our work and be an important agent during this transition. I’d also like to thank all of my colleagues at NIJ for their dedication to the vision I brought to NIJ and their ability to adapt to the emerging needs of the criminal justice community. I have learned a lot from them and will miss them dearly. Finally, I want to thank my husband, David, and sons, Ethan and Isaac, who gave so much of themselves to allow me to embark on this journey. The demands placed upon them were endless, and I wouldn't be here without their continued love and support.

As I move on to my next chapter, I will bring with me countless memories of discussions about science with police chiefs, line officers, correctional administrators, inmates, crime laboratory directors, victim advocates, and court officials. I will never forget the insightful explanations of crime as expressed by officers, as we patrolled some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in our country, or the powerful meetings with victims of crime, like the families impacted by the Sandy Hook shooting or survivors of sexual assault.

I have always been motivated by the challenges faced by those affected by crime and those vested with the authority to prevent and reduce crime. It’s these challenges that make me want to work harder as a scientist. My tenure as NIJ Director has not only made me a better researcher, but, also, a bigger proponent of science. Rest assured, I'll be a lifetime advocate of this remarkable agency and persistent champion of science. I hope you will join me in this endeavor. Until we meet again.

Date Created: January 13, 2017