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Stanford Impact Labs forges partnerships to tackle social problems

Jeremy Weinstein

Jeremy Weinstein, professor of political science and director of the Stanford Global Studies Division, is faculty director of the Stanford Impact Labs, a new initiative that connects faculty studying social problems with community partners who work to co-create solutions.

Image credit: L.A. Cicero
Jul 8 2020

Posted In:

Faculty, Research

Unlike medicine and engineering, which have strong research and development pipelines leading from scientific advances to practical innovations, the social sciences lack a similar infrastructure, slowing the rate at which data and insights generated by social science research shape the design of new solutions.

That’s the gap addressed by the Stanford Impact Labs (SIL), an accelerator that arose as part of the university’s Long-Range Vision. SIL’s goal is to maximize the impact of the university’s research and engagement on social problems through partnerships with the public, private and social sectors. The initiative (formerly called Social X-Change) models what a new R&D pipeline – one with significant investments in promising partnerships, a cadre of professional staff, and innovative training and education – could look like. When the investments yield compelling solutions, SIL works with faculty and their external collaborators to scale those innovations to other contexts around the country and the globe.

“We want to make Stanford as vital to innovation around social problems as it is to innovation in the life sciences, business and engineering,” said Jeremy Weinstein, professor of political science in the School of Humanities and Sciences, who is the faculty director of the initiative.

Connecting research and practice

The social sciences are at an inflection point in terms of the kinds of data they are now able to collect, and their potential for societal impact, Weinstein said. Meanwhile, leaders in the public, private and social sectors are looking for evidence-based solutions. “There is an enormous disconnect between those who generate scientific knowledge about social problems and the users of that knowledge,” he said. “We have a unique opportunity to close that gap.”

SIL forges that connection by training faculty who want to apply their research to social problems, and by funding faculty-led initiatives, called “impact labs”, to co-create solutions with external partners. They are also working with the Haas Center for Public Service to place faculty with public and social sector organizations as part of a “leaves in service” program, and are launching a training program for fifteen graduate students to participate in problem-focused research with an affiliated impact lab over the summer.

During the 2019-2020 academic year, SIL funded the first round of a year-long fellowship program that provided a cohort of faculty with skills and resources to tackle issues in collaboration with partners in the community. The group attended sessions on identifying stakeholders, building a theory of change, creating partnerships and designing an organizational model, among other tools needed to start or accelerate their own impact labs.

Faculty in the first cohort focused on a range of social issues including food insecurity, gentrification, the impact of technology on young people, racism, gender-based violence, teacher retention and the role of community colleges in providing new skills for workers.

Criminal legal system, education and the environment

SIL also recently announced their first round of start-up investments in impact labs. The five investments, which provide two years of financial support, will address diverse social problems including police-community relations, economic policies for renewable energy, pre-trial incarceration, access to early childhood education and the vulnerability of low-income communities to climate change.

Beyond funding, Maya Rossin-Slater, an economist and assistant professor of medicine, said SIL helps overcome barriers faculty may struggle with, including legal hurdles to accessing data, challenges finding the right partners and an academic climate that sometimes values publications over public impact. She is working with David Grusky, professor of sociology, to evaluate early childhood development interventions in Washington state. “Through Stanford Impact Labs we can build a faculty cohort who can work in parallel and learn from each other,” she said.

Jenny Suckale, assistant professor of geophysics, said SIL helps bridge the gap between the priorities of academic research and real-world social problems. She’s working with Derek Ouyang, program manager at the Stanford Future Bay Initiative, who spent five years building community relationships to help marginalized groups that will be disproportionally impacted by the effects of climate change, such as flooding or wildfires. “Knowledge is such a powerful thing,” she said. “It’s exciting that there’s now a more deliberate attempt to prioritize impact.”

Serving the local community

Recently, SIL has also mobilized faculty experts to work with city and county officials to help tackle challenges resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, with a focus on how best to restart the economy in an inclusive way and lay the foundation for a more equitable Silicon Valley going forward.

“There is a clear through-line between what the university needs to do in the coming months to help the campus and our broader community recover and what we need to be prepared to do over the longer term to address the underlying structural challenges all around us,” Weinstein said.

Relationships with local leaders formed to address immediate concerns will also position faculty to engage on the long-term issues in the region, including housing, access to health care and education and inequality. Future funding for new impact labs will dedicate resources to these issues.

Beyond supporting faculty whose research touches on social problems, SIL is providing a way for the entire Stanford community to play a role in addressing these challenges. They are beginning to work with Megan Swezey Fogarty, associate vice president for community engagement, University Human Resources staff members and others to consider how campus efforts can be furthered to create incentives for faculty and staff to become more engaged, building on successful community models such as BeWell or MyCardinalGreen.

“This pandemic reaffirms the commitment of so many people on campus to be more engaged,” Weinstein said. “We have a stake in the community around us thriving.”