A New Model for Public Impact

The world’s biggest social problems are complex, multi-faceted, and stubborn.  No academic center, company, or organization can solve issues like economic inequality or pandemic response alone. We need leaders with different skills and experiences to come together to create fresh insights, evidence, and action to make progress.

Stanford Impact Labs invests in highly-motivated teams of researchers and practitioners from government, business, nonprofit organizations, and philanthropy. These teams—impact labs—work together on social problems they choose and where practical progress is possible. With our support, they can rapidly develop, test, and scale new solutions to social problems that affect millions of people worldwide.

Our approach builds on what works in the life sciences and engineering to turn academic discovery into medical advances and new technologies people use: significant investment in research and development, and close partnership with academics and leaders outside the university. It’s time to support the social sciences the same way. With financial capital, professional support, and training, we can catalyze problem-focused research and partnerships to generate new insights and solutions to persistent social problems. In doing so, we can make social science work for society.

Why now?

Social science can do more for society than ever before

The social sciences are at an inflection point in terms of what is possible. Researchers can measure human behavior and institutions better than ever before, deploy cutting-edge data science tools to extract practical insights, and mobilize teams to generate insights and applications with potential for public impact. To increase the public impact of social science, though, the research must be informed by practical experience and put into practice with those outside the university.

Linking research and practical experience creates new insights and better evidence

Leaders in the public, private, and social sectors are championing evidence-based practices and innovation. They want new data and research to shape their policy and program decisions. But often, they are pressed to make decisions quickly, without the benefit of rigorous research built into their processes. They are eager to partner with social scientists to jointly design, test, and scale new interventions.

An R&D model for the social sciences can create public impact now and for the future

An effective model of research and development for social problems requires significant financial investments and a commitment to training a new generation of problem-solvers. We make staged and sequenced investments in partnerships between leading researchers and practitioners—impact labs—to generate innovative policies, programs, and interventions that meaningfully address social problems. In parallel, we offer training for undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty who aspire to tackle social problems but need additional skills and capabilities to do so effectively.

Read more about how our work supports Stanford’s Long-Range Vision to ensure the university’s research and education makes a purposeful impact in the world.

Impact Labs

Impact labs are problem-focused teams of scholars and practitioners who are highly-motivated to work together to make progress on social problems—from reducing pretrial incarceration to rebuilding local economies following the COVID-19 pandemic. They bring together expertise from across the university, government agencies, school districts, police departments, community-based advocacy organizations, and the private sector to:

  • Deepen understanding of a concrete, real-world problem;
  • Generate hypotheses about key causes of the problem;
  • Design and test potential solutions;
  • Capture and share insights about what works and what doesn’t; and
  • Identify opportunities to adapt and expand promising approaches.

Impact labs let teams connect research to practical solutions, shaping new policies, programs, practices, or products that can improve people’s lives and opportunities.

The impact labs we support focus on social problems that faculty and practitioners identify as most urgent and where they believe there is the most potential to make progress. We do not have fixed areas of focus or social problems to tackle. We are designed to be agile, flexible, and responsive to the changing issues in society, priorities and concerns of external partners, and the shifting expertise and interests of faculty, staff, and students.

We make staged and sequenced investments to catalyze impact labs that bring leaders in government, business, nonprofits and the university together to tackle concrete, real-world social problems with new evidence and practical solutions.

  • Stage 1: Seed Partnerships (up to $350,000 for a maximum 2 years) Stage 1: Seed Partnerships provides seed funding for new and established partnerships to conduct research that deepens understanding of the problem and sets the stage for testing solutions. 
  • Stage 2: Test Solutions (up to $800,000 for a maximum 3 years, formerly named Start-Up Funding) Stage 2: Test Solutions funding supports teams that have made significant progress defining the problem, conducted initial discovery about how they might approach the issue, and have a strong partnership in place.  
  • Stage 3: Amplify Impact (up to $5,000,000 for a maximum 5 years) Stage 3: Amplify Impact funding goes to impact labs that show the most promise and articulate a clear plan for generating, testing, and scaling solutions. Track A: Scaling Insights investments provide flexible funding to put specific insights to use across multiple contexts at scale. Track B: R&D Agenda investments provide long-term, flexible support to impact labs running multiple R&D cycles across multiple different insights around a common impact-focused research agenda.

In addition to financial capital, we equip all of our problem-focused partnerships with training, thought-partnership, mentoring, communications support and advice, and other tools and resources so impact labs can turn their evidence and experience into purposeful work that benefits society. We also run several programs to help Stanford faculty and students build the skills and capabilities required to strengthen their public impact scholarship.

How We Make Investments

We run competitive processes to allocate our investments, and proposals are reviewed for scientific promise and potential public impact by expert reviewers in the academic area and by leading practitioners in our network.

While each investment type undergoes a unique review process, applications are generally evaluated on the following criteria:

Importance of the social program, including the scope of the problem, costs of inaction, potential use of new approaches, value of scientific exploration, and potential to scale solutions. 

Scientific contribution, including the potential to advance scientific understanding and shape practice based on clear hypotheses the lab plans to test and a credible research design for drawing inferences about the effectiveness of particular interventions.

Path from science to impact based on evidence that labs have a theory of change linking proposed scientific research with potential impact in the world. This means being explicit about who needs to be involved in the research up-front, how they might use insights that emerge, and what it would mean to scale those insights. We do not support projects designed only to generate research for academic audiences.  

Credible partnerships between scholars and partners in the public, private, and social sectors. The proposed research agenda must be developed and embraced by both scholars and external partners with a set of objectives and processes they commit to engage in over multiple years. We do not make investments where the primary goal is to extract administrative data from an organization for the purposes of academic publication.  

Team and people that have the expertise and capabilities to deliver on the proposal and a credible plan for building that team. This will require team members with a wide range of skills including administrative, legal, communications, policy, and other relevant expertise.

Innovations in Training and Education

Design Fellowship

One-year, $50,000 design fellowships provide resources,  training, and mentoring for faculty to conceptualize new impact labs. Funding is flexible and recipients work alongside a cohort of faculty each year, all of whom are working to design and launch new impact labs with partners in government, businesses, nonprofit and community organizations.

We also run programs to help Stanford students build the skills and capabilities required to strengthen their public impact scholarship.

Summer Collaborative Research Fellowship

The Stanford Impact Labs Collaborative Research Fellowship is an experiential training program that offers outstanding doctoral students the opportunity to actively engage in problem-focused research with close advising and mentorship from faculty and staff across a variety of affiliated impact labs.

Fifteen PhD students were funded to work with nine different labs across campus: Sophie Allen, Will Marble, Carrie Flores, Ishita Ahmed, Feyaad Allie, Saurabh Khanna, Matt Ribar, David Lang, Madison Dalton, Cesar Vargas, Mark Krass, Maggie Perry, Christianne Corbett, Julia Melin, and Erin Macke.

Scholars in Service

In partnership with the Haas Center for Public Service, the Scholars in Service program supports faculty to pursue in-depth, hands-on learning within public service organizations, with the goal of generating new research insights and accelerating promising approaches to intractable social issues. The program provides financial and staff resources to identify and support placement for a summer, quarter, or up to a year in public sector agencies and nonprofit organizations.  In our first year, we awarded three faculty members with leave opportunities: Henry Lee, School of Medicine; Latha Palaniappan, School of Medicine; Teresa LaFromboise; Graduate School of Education.  

Creating a Culture of Public Impact

In addition to our impact lab investments and innovations in training in education, we are working to create a culture of public impact at Stanford. We launched a Scholars in Service program for faculty to pursue in-depth, hands-on learning with public service organizations to generate new research insights and promising approaches to complex social issues. We helped establish fifteen public impact professorships. And we continue to cultivate, encourage, and fund external service and leadership experiences for Stanford faculty and students. We hope to learn from and inspire other university-based efforts to increase public research, service, leadership and impact.

How We Measure Public Impact

Impact and influence take many forms. We recognize the teams we support could make considerable progress without definitively solving a particular social issue. That said, the social problems work on are too important not to make progress; we are relentlessly committed to making demonstrable public impact and progress. 

We start by making sure teams have the tools, resources, and partners to make headway. Then, we look to see that teams are generating practical solutions, testing them, and sharing what they learn and how they adapt. Their impact could be direct and within a particular program, government agency, or business. We expect teams to share their knowledge and insights.

Ultimately, we ask whether the impact labs we support:

  • Contribute to concrete progress on targeted outcomes;
  • Influence decisions by those in positions of authority;
  • Shape public debate about the issues ; and
  • Change how society tackles critical problems.

Beyond the impact or influence of any single investment or impact lab, we also want to build momentum around the impact labs’ scholar-practitioner approach to tackle real-world problems and explore practical solutions. Universities have a critical role and responsibility to ensure their research, education, and resources make a purposeful impact in the world. We believe Stanford Impact Labs’ investments in rigorous research and practical partnerships will let leaders across the university and in government, business, and nonprofits work together to make progress on the world’s hardest social challenges.