Creating a Culture of Public Impact

Open letter /

Flower bushes with Stanford quad and Hoover Tower in the background
Credit: Andrew Brodhead

At a moment in history when social science can do more for society than ever before, we believe in the importance of developing new models to address pervasive social challenges. 

The time to innovate is now. 

Researchers can measure human behavior and institutions better than ever before, deploy cutting-edge data science tools to extract practical findings, and mobilize teams to generate insights and applications with potential for public impact. 

To truly leverage this enhanced capacity, however, research must be informed by practical know-how and lived experience and put into practice with those outside the university. We need to recognize that, for too long, the culture of universities has reinforced patterns of exclusivity and enabled extractive research practices. In order for initiatives like ours to have any real impact, we have to start by building trust with our collaborators, engaging directly with communities, and creating space for mutually beneficial partnerships that draw on multiple perspectives and capabilities.   

Guided by these commitments, we focus the work of Stanford Impact Labs in two core areas: (1) we invest in collaborative teams (impact labs) of scholars, practitioners, and key partners in the public, private, and social sector; and (2) we develop training programs for faculty and students to support a new generation of solutions-focused leaders.

In addition to our impact lab investments and innovations in training and education, Stanford Impact Labs is dedicated to creating a culture of public impact in higher education at Stanford and beyond. 

As part of the Biden-Harris administration’s Year of Evidence in Action, we co-hosted an evidence forum with the White House in December 2022 on what the world needs now from universities to shape effective solutions to pressing social problems. We invite you to watch the conversation and contact us with questions or insights. You can also read more about that event here.

On our own campus, we launched a Scholars in Service program for faculty to pursue in-depth, hands-on learning through sabbaticals in government and non-profit organizations. Hear more from Stanford economist Gopi Shah Goda here on what a year in service at the White House looks like. We also helped establish a new set of fifteen faculty positions at Stanford - public impact professorships - with the goal of bringing to the university scholars who have a distinctive record of impact beyond academia. And we continue to cultivate, encourage, and fund external service and leadership experiences for Stanford faculty and students. 

As we do this work, we hope to learn from and inspire other university-based initiatives that are deepening the public impact of higher education and building new models that leverage advances in science to support community-led problem-solving. 

How We Measure Impact

Impact and influence take many forms. 

We recognize the labs we support could make considerable progress without definitively solving a particular social issue. We often see the work of our labs provoke, and contribute to, critical national conversations around issues including the threat of political polarization or the future of reproductive rights. That said, the social problems we work on are too important not to make tangible progress beyond increased public awareness, and we are relentlessly committed to making demonstrable impact. 

We do this by making sure labs have the necessary tools, resources, and partners to make headway. We look to see that teams are generating practical solutions, testing, and scaling them (while learning and sharing how the work can be adapted to other contexts). We further challenge our labs to think about what scale really looks like–as the path from science to impact means focusing on how to deliver meaningful and measurable improvements for more people and in more places. 

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 lab, we aim to build momentum around the scholar-practitioner approach to tackling real-world problems and exploring practical solutions in partnership. We see this approach as not only useful, but vital, and believe universities have a critical responsibility to ensure their research, education, and resources have purposeful impact in the world. 

We trust that investments like ours in rigorous research and practical partnerships can catalyze leaders across higher education, government, business, and philanthropy to work together to make progress on stubborn social challenges. This work is underway at Stanford and we’re committed to supporting parallel efforts beyond Stanford. 

We are inspired by so many innovators in higher education, government, private industry, and the nonprofit sector who are trying to shake up how the work of solving social problems is carried out. Although the road ahead is long, we are excited to be a part of this necessary movement for change.