NIRN Celebrates 10-Year Anniversary

Date Published: 


"NIRN began with the enthusiastic efforts of a few individuals and the hope of stimulating research, evaluation, policy, and practice related to implementation. Ten years later the fledgling national network is now active in an engaged global community. "


NIRN Co-Directors Dean Fixsen and Karen Blase discuss the past, present and future of NIRN and implementation science.

Karen Blase, Ph.D.

Senior Scientist
Co-Director and founding member of NIRN

Dean Fixsen, Ph.D.

Senior Scientist
Co-Director and founding member of NIRN

At the beginning of this millennium the idea of evidence-based programs was catching on and research and policy leaders were excited at the prospects for improving human services.  Governments and foundations began investing heavily in the development of evidence-based programs in social services, education, and health.  The results have been very promising, with more evidence-based programs being developed and evaluated with increasing rigor.

Why create a National Implementation Research Network (NIRN)?  The Great Society Programs in the 1960s – 1980s were the equivalent of the evidence-based program movement today.  Back then, the co-directors of the NIRN lived through the high hopes for research-based programs and the disappointments following their lack of impact on service delivery and outcomes.  Since 1967, their own experiences developing and (initially) failing to replicate a research-based program added to their concern and fueled their curiosity.  Carol Weiss and others tell the story of how program evaluation was born in the crucible of the Great Society Programs.  Pressman and Wildavsky, Tornatzky and Fairweather, Wolf and Phillips, Bellamy and Paine and others tell the story of how implementation evolved from evaluations showing that a program “worked” in some locations but not others.  Type III errors were identified by Dobson and Cook – evaluators assessing the outcomes of a program that was not actually being used.  It seemed that evidence-based programs mattered, and implementation mattered as well.

NIRN Group in 2004
NIRN in 2004
<left to right> Dean Fixsen, Frances Wallace, Karen Blase, Sandra Naoom and Melissa Van Dyke

It was in this context that the National Implementation Research Network was born in 2002.  Robert Friedman and David Shern, in their leadership roles at the Florida Mental Health Institute at the University of South Florida, actively encouraged the development of a center focused on implementation.  The freedom, vision, and support they offered encouraged the launch of NIRN.  The overarching mission was to help bridge the gap between science and service.   Early signature events and support brought together diverse perspectives on using science in service settings and funded the synthesis of the implementation research and evaluation literature.  The Annie E. Casey Foundation funded a meeting of leaders of racial and ethnic professional and service organizations and the developers of evidence-based programs to wrestle with important questions and build consensus around the role of evidence-based practices in the context of culturally appropriate and responsive services.  The W.T. Grant Foundation funded a review of the implementation research and evaluation literature resulting in the 2005 monograph, Implementation Research: A Synthesis of the Literature.  The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Agency (SAMHSA) supported a series of meetings to glean best practices from groups supporting the implementation of evidence-based programs, using evidence-based programs in their agencies, doing research on implementation variables, and crafting policies to support implementation and evidence-based programs.  These opportunities provided the empirical and conceptual foundations for the National Implementation Research Network.

NIRN began with the enthusiastic efforts of a few individuals and the hope of stimulating research, evaluation, policy, and practice related to implementation.  These ambitions were fueled by the development of a national network of diverse partners and stakeholders.  Ten years later the fledgling national network is now active in an engaged global community.  NIRN has assembled a team of 13 professionals appreciative of their home at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  Projects and partnerships range from developing the implementation infrastructure for health and early childhood initiatives in underserved areas, to developing scale-up strategies for evidence-based educational practices, to testing measures of implementation capacity (view current NIRN portfolio). 

NIRN has grown as an entity and the ‘network’ in NIRN is now global.  In 2011, NIRN brought global partners together to host the first Global Implementation Conference, with 800 participants from around the world representing program developers, researchers, policymakers, and practitioners interested in science, practice, and policies related to implementation.  NIRN continues its global collaboration through the Global Implementation Initiative (GII) that emerged from the conference in 2011.   Regional and National Implementation partnerships in Australia, California, Colorado, Europe, North Carolina, Scandanavia and Washington are collaboratively defining and debating the issues related to the fledgling field of Implementation Science.  These groups are promoting research and evaluation efforts that focus on providing implementation informed support to states, countries, coalitions, and agencies.

While NIRN looks back on 10 years of dynamic growth, engaged partnerships, and improved knowledge, the work continues to be humbling and exciting. The next decade holds even greater promise for making “new ways of work” the ways of work in human services around the globe.