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“Life’s Wealth is to Do”: Reflections on Developmental and Prevention Science Pioneers in Understanding and Preventing Violence

The quote that serves as the main title of this chapter captures a rather important outlook on life, something that is characteristic of each of the five scientists examined in this chapter—and more than likely, I suspect, of all of the scientists in this book. However, this ...

Published onFeb 01, 2021
“Life’s Wealth is to Do”: Reflections on Developmental and Prevention Science Pioneers in Understanding and Preventing Violence


The quote that serves as the main title of this chapter captures a rather important outlook on life, something that is characteristic of each of the five scientists examined in this chapter—and more than likely, I suspect, of all of the scientists in this book. However, this quote is incomplete. The full quote, by the famous British poet Siegfried Sassoon (1945: 154), does even more justice to the five scientists and their life-work; it reads: “Life’s wealth is to do; its loss—to dream and wait.” It is safe to say that there was not much, if any, dreaming and waiting going on among these five scientists! This is best exemplified through their individual pioneering research as well as prolific writing in the cause of advancing knowledge on the development and prevention of violence. By any measure, their respective bodies of work have made major gains in pushing the field forward and have made lasting contributions to society.

I have elected to write about five scientists who are the subject of four chapters in this volume: David Farrington; Rolf and Magda Loeber; Friedrich Lösel; and Richard Tremblay. I have done so because of their singular contributions to understanding and preventing violence, as well as because each has influenced—with some continuing to influence—my own academic career in the prevention of antisocial behavior and violent offending.

A few personal remarks on these five scientists seem warranted. David Farrington provided the inspiration for me to attend Cambridge University, chaired my Ph.D. dissertation, and together we have written several books and scores of scientific articles. With Rolf and Magda Loeber, I collaborated on a study drawing on the youngest sample of the Pittsburgh Youth Study and (with Rolf) wrote a Festschrift for David Farrington on his (supposed!) retirement. Alongside Friedrich Lösel, I have had the honor to serve as a member of the Campbell Collaboration’s Crime and Justice Coordinating Group. With Richard Tremblay, I have written several scientific articles, including a biography of Joan McCord’s contributions to criminology. In no small measure, I hold each responsible for helping prepare me for a new chapter in my career: continuing the life-work of Joan McCord, by directing and carrying out a new program of research on the Cambridge-Somerville Youth Study (see e.g., Welsh et al. 2019a, b; Zane et al. 2019). The phrase “standing on the shoulders of giants” seems quite fitting.

In the pages that follow, I offer my views on how these five scientists—pioneers in developmental and prevention science—have made a difference in understanding and preventing violence (with a heavy dose on the latter), as well as the importance this holds for the future of violence prevention. I begin with some key lessons that I have learned from their life and career trajectories.

Lessons Learned from Life and Career Trajectories

I have been fortunate to come in contact with these and other world-class developmental and prevention scientists from an early stage in my academic training and career. This has allowed me to experience first-hand some of the events these five scientists describe in their chapters. But it is the lessons learned from their life and career trajectories that stand the test of time, and several lessons are especially notable. One is the intellectual curiosity that guided from an early stage each of the scientists. As noted by Tremblay, “I was also strongly attracted to the pleasure of learning, in the sense of getting to the root of things” (p. 12). Closely related is the quest for knowledge—pushing the boundaries of science and answering pressing social questions. This too began at an early stage for these scientists and did not wane with age or experience.

A second lesson, which has already been noted in the introductory remarks, is the spirit of getting on with the work; the doing that is central to being productive. Farrington captures this best with his trademark saying, “Let’s go for it” (p. 12). Sometimes this means taking a risk or forging a new path where no one else has wandered; sometimes it may even mean accepting the prospect of failure, what Firestein (2016) argues is at the core of advancing science.

Of a more practical note is the lesson that has to do with attention to detail in the conduct of experimental and longitudinal research. More specifically, this calls for meticulous record keeping and doggedness in tracing participants over sometimes lengthy periods of time. As noted by the Loebers, “A study is only as good as the participation rate and the quality of the data” (p. 30).

Perspectives on Research Legacies for Research Needed in the Next Half-Century

Readers of the chapters by these five scientists will marvel at how each of them have managed to initiate, direct, and sustain—for several decades in some cases—a number of the field’s landmark prospective longitudinal and longitudinal-experimental studies. These include Farrington’s Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development; the Loebers’ Pittsburgh Youth Study and Pittsburgh Girls Study; Lösel’s Erlangen-Nuremberg Development and Prevention Study; and Tremblay’s Montreal Longitudinal-Experimental Study and Preparing for Life study.

Readers’ interest will be even more so heightened with the studies’ contributions to science and public policy. It is, in my opinion, these landmark studies and how they will continue to be utilized that point to the research that is needed in the next half-century. For example, through the Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development, Farrington has been at the forefront of advocating for and demonstrating the importance of linking up fundamental research on development and risk and protective factors for criminal offending (the focus of his study) with applied research on the prevention of crime and violence. Better known as risk-focused prevention, research in this area will be in even greater demand in the years to come. Following from Tremblay’s research in the area of epigenetics, there will also be a need for expanded research on “prenatal and early postnatal bio-psycho-social interventions” designed to “prevent early onset of chronic physical aggression problems” (p. 4). This work will take on added importance as we learn more about the intergenerational transmission of the effects of violence prevention programs (see Bailey et al. 2018).

Priorities for Future Research

Building on the research legacies of these five scientists, this section sketches out some personal views on what should be key priorities for research on violence over the next half-century. One priority is a need to begin to shift from research on the development of violence to research on the prevention of violence. By no means is this suggesting that we have learned everything there is to know about the development of violence. Rather, it is an acknowledgment of the impressive body of knowledge on the development of violence that has been produced so far—thanks in part to these five scientists—and a real sense of urgency to: (1) translate this knowledge into preventive action, and (2) provide greater understanding about evidence-based violence prevention programs and local and state level violence prevention networks that are using research evidence.

Also important to this shift in priorities is the recognition of the growing body of high-quality scientific evidence on the effectiveness of childhood and adolescent violence prevention programs and from which evidence-based conclusions can be drawn. This was a central argument advanced more than a decade ago by one of these scientists in the book, Saving Children from a Life of Crime (Farrington and Welsh 2007). It seems reasonable that 80-85% of spending on violence research should be allocated to projects with direct impact on the prevention of violence.

Closely related to this focus on research on violence prevention is the need for greater understanding of scaling up evidence-based programs for wider dissemination and achieving population-level impacts. Both of these issues are at the heart of evidence-based policy-making for preventing violence (Dodge and Mandel 2012). Research is needed on the underlying processes and interactions of the key factors (e.g., implementation context, heterogeneity in target populations and service providers, fidelity to the model) that contribute to attenuation of effects as preventive interventions move from efficacy trials to effectiveness trials to large-scale delivery systems. Research is also needed to improve our knowledge on how the full potential of evidence-based programs can be realized by producing effects that are beneficial as well as sustainable for large segments of society.

Training the Next Generation of Scientists

At a time of increasing public skepticism toward scientific facts and an all-out attack on some areas of science in the United States and in other countries (Oreskes 2019; Plumer and Davenport 2019), it is more important than ever that we renew our commitment in training the next generation of scientists in the conduct of basic and applied research on the development and prevention of violence. This should begin with championing support—in an unequivocal way—for what David Olds (2009) calls “disciplined passion.” In the context of program evaluation, for example, it is by no means the case that a program developer cannot also serve as program evaluator. There is nothing here that even raises a hint of any potential bias or conflict of interest. The reason for this has everything to do with the scientific training received by the investigator. This is the discipline—the scientific integrity—that is exercised in the conduct of research. In addition to establishing their commitment to using the highest standards of scientific inquiry, it also gives investigators the ability to follow their interests—their passions—in pursuit of advancing knowledge and improving public policy.


It is sometimes speculated among criminologists about where we would be as a discipline and even as a society if one brilliant scientist or another had decided to pursue a different career path, thereby, sweeping away all of their important contributions to understanding and preventing violence. This is to say nothing of what would have become of the scores of young scientists who they trained and the many who continue to collaborate with them. It is not a pleasant thought. Thankfully, we can take great comfort that each of these five developmental and prevention scientists committed themselves to a life of discovery in this field. We are richer for their pioneering works; we are better scientists for their leadership.


Bailey, Jennifer A., Karl G. Hill, Marina Epstein, Christine Steeger, and J. David Hawkins. 2018. “Seattle Social Development Project—The Intergenerational Project (SSDP-TIP).” In Intergenerational Continuity of Criminal and Antisocial Behaviour: An International Overview of Studies, edited by Veroni I. Eichelsheim and Steve A. G. van de Weijer, pp. 186-213. London: Routledge.

Dodge, Kenneth A., and Adam D. Mandel. 2012. “Building Evidence for Evidence-Based Policy Making.” Criminology & Public Policy 11: 525-534.

Farrington, David P., and Brandon C. Welsh. 2007. Saving Children from a Life of Crime: Early Risk Factors and Effective Interventions. New York: Oxford University Press.

Firestein, Stuart. 2016. Failure: Why Science is so Successful. New York: Oxford University Press.

Olds, David L. 2009. “In Support of Disciplined Passion.” Journal of Experimental Criminology 5: 201-214.

Oreskes, Naomi. 2019. Why Trust Science? Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Plumer, Brad, and Coral Davenport. 2019. “Trump Eroding Role of Science in Government.” New York Times, 29 December 2019, A1-16, 17.

Sassoon, Siegfried. 1945. Siegfried’s Journey, 1916-1920. London: Faber and Faber.

Welsh, Brandon C., Steven N. Zane, Gregory M. Zimmerman, and Alexis Yohros. 2019a. “Association of a Crime Prevention Program for Boys with Mortality 72 Years after the Intervention: Follow-Up of a Randomized Clinical Trial.” JAMA Network Open 2(3): e190782.

Welsh, Brandon C., Nicole E. Dill, and Steven N. Zane. 2019b. “The First Delinquency Prevention Experiment: A Socio-Historical Review of the Origins of the Cambridge-Somerville Youth Study.” Journal of Experimental Criminology 15: 441-451.

Zane, Steven N., Brandon C. Welsh, and Gregory M. Zimmerman. 2019. “Criminal Offending and Mortality over the Full Life-Course: A 70-Year Follow-Up of the Cambridge-Somerville Youth Study.” Journal of Quantitative Criminology 35: 691-713.

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