Stanford Impact Labs forges partnerships to tackle social problems

Stanford Impact Labs provides an innovative research and development pipeline for the social sciences, connecting researchers with leaders in the public, social and private sectors to develop evidence-driven solutions to social problems.

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.

Jeremy Weinstein, professor of political sciences, 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)

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.

Funded impact labs

Pretrial incarceration

Every day American jails hold half a million people who have not been convicted of a crime, creating social and economic hardships for the individuals, who might be held for months awaiting court dates, and costing local governments $13.6 billion each year. Sharad Goel, assistant professor of management science and engineering, and a team at the Stanford Computational Policy Lab are working with the Santa Clara County Public Defender and The Bail Project to create and implement an open-source app that improves the likelihood people will show up to court dates, including reminders and arranging transportation. The idea is that by increasing the number of people who make court dates, judges will be less likely to hold people by denying bail or setting bail higher than people can afford. “Through these platforms, our research will directly improve pretrial outcomes for thousands of individuals across the country every year,” Goel said.

Guillaume Basse, Management Science & Engineering, Statistics; Emma Brunskill, Computer Science.

Climate change resilience

As with other disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes or volcanoes, the effects of climate change, including increased wildfires and flood, will disproportionately impact marginalized groups. Jenny Suckale, assistant professor of geophysics, is leading a collaboration between the Stanford Future Bay Initiative and local, regional and California state-wide partners to understand the possible outcomes of climate change in these communities and develop equitable adaptation strategies. “Communities know a lot about the problem they struggle with, what is holding them back and how they could move forward,” she said. “Rather than me coming up with a solution that I try to enforce, we sit down and have a dialogue as equals.” The group will work primarily with the homeless or those on the verge of homelessness, two communities that tend to be left out of climate change mitigation planning.

Gabrielle Wong-Parodi, Earth System Science; Jack Baker, Civil & Environmental Engineering; David Grusky, Sociology; Bruce Cain, Political Science; Derek Ouyang, lecturer, Geophysics.

Early childhood development

Experiences like abuse or trauma can slow a child’s development and reinforce the cycle of poverty. Many states run outreach programs to intervene in that cycle by supporting kids and their families, but without good data, it’s hard to know which programs are most effective. David Grusky, professor of sociology, is leading a collaboration between the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality and the state of Washington’s Department of Children, Youth and Families to evaluate three programs focused on health, disabilities and parenting skills. “The common-sense idea that a state’s policy should be based on the evidence has – strangely enough – come to be seen as radically disruptive,” Grusky said. These findings will also benefit other states that run versions of those same programs.

Maya Rossin-Slater, Medicine; Charles Varner, Associate Director, Center on Poverty and Inequality; Jonathan Fisher, Research Scholar, Center on Poverty and Inequality.

Police-community relations

Police-community relations in the U.S. are troubled, particularly in Black communities where there is a long and fraught history. Current approaches to bridging the divide, such as bias training, do not focus enough on building actual relationships between police and the communities they are meant to serve. Jennifer Eberhardt, professor of psychology, is leading a collaboration between SPARQ and the San Francisco Police Department to design and test a novel intervention program to build relationships, address these complex dynamics and create solutions. The program will engage police and community members’ individual and collective identities, leveraging novel, experiential techniques to build respect, empathy, trust and shared understanding. Importantly, police and community members will have the opportunity to collaborate as change agents and co-create solutions with the potential to make a lasting impact. “By deepening relationships between police and communities, norms and understandings of police officers’ roles can shift, paving the way for the culture of an agency, and potentially of an entire industry, to change,” Eberhardt said.

Hazel Markus, Psychology; Jeremy Bailenson, Communication; Dan Jurafsky, Linguistics, Computer Science.

The green economy

California has set the goal of having 100 percent of its electricity consumption being carbon-free by 2045. Achieving this goal while maintaining a reliable supply of electricity at a reasonable price will require significant changes in California’s electricity supply industry. Modifications of wholesale and retail pricing policies are necessary to support investments in short-term and seasonal storage facilities. Because wind and solar generation units must be built where the underlying resource exists, substantial transmission network expansions are required between regions with rich wind and solar resources and major urban centers. “Public support for aggressive climate action in California could decline if there are adverse grid reliability and cost implications from pursuing these goals,” said Frank Wolak, professor of economics. He and his team at Stanford’s Program on Energy and Sustainable Development, will work with the California Public Utilities Commission to research, design and implement next-generation policies and regulations to support a smooth transition to low carbon electricity sector.

Mark Thurber, Social Science Research Scholar; Trevor Davis, Postdoctoral Scholar, Economics; Christof Graf, Postdoctoral Scholar, Economics.

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.

“We have a stake in the community around us thriving.”

—Jeremy Weinstein

Professor of Political Science

“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.”

Weinstein is also a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) and the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR). Grusky is also a senior fellow at SIEPR. Suckale is also a center fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and a center fellow at the Institute for Computational and Mathematical Engineering. Rossin-Slater is also a faculty fellow at SIEPR. Eberhardt is also the Morris M. Doyle Centennial Professor of Public Policy. Wolak is also the Holbrook Working Professor in Commodity Price Studies, Senior Fellow at SIEPR and FSI and an affiliate of the Woods Institute.