Okay, so by “we,” we mean Stanford Impact Labs, which just invested $4 million of Stage 2: Test Solutions funding in eight new teams of scholars and practitioners. The teams will work together to generate new evidence and practical solutions to some of the biggest problems — and schisms — in our society.
Think: misinformation, polarization, and threats to democracy; racial bias in healthcare, housing, and schools; and tax havens and global financial risks.
This is our third year awarding Stage 2: Test Solutions funding (previously named start-up funding). It aims to build and support new impact labs for social problems. Three things stand out this time around:
Strongest set of applicants, most we’ve funded in one round.
Huge range of partners: government, nonprofits, media, healthcare, financial institutions, school districts, state education departments, library associations, and from across Stanford and other universities.
Experiments in our investment process gave us more confidence about where to best direct $4 million to put social science to use for society.
Meet the eight Stage 2: Test Solutions recipients
We selected eight teams from 39 initial proposals. Each will receive $500,000 to test new solutions as partners — combining research and practical expertise. They’ll harness advances in social science and practical insights from those who design and implement policies and programs to generate new ideas, evidence, and solutions that can be put to use at scale.
We don’t have fixed areas of focus or social problems that we fund. That said, the recipients this year are working on three broad categories of social problems: misinformation, polarization, and threats to democracy; racial and socioeconomic inequality in healthcare, housing, and schools; and tax havens and economic contagion.
Full descriptions of their work, team members, and contact information are on our website. Here they are in short form:
MISINFORMATION, POLARIZATION, AND THREATS TO DEMOCRACY
The Empowering Diverse Digital Citizens Lab will test digital media literacy interventions designed to equip older adults, immigrants, and adolescents in the United States with skills and resources to avoid misinformation and build trust in credible news and information. The team includes the Poynter Institute's MediaWise initiative and scholars from Stanford’s Department of Communication and the Stanford Social Media Lab. Through MediaWise, the team will build on longstanding working relationships with AARP, the largest nonprofit supporting Americans over the age of 50, the American Library Association, and the PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs .
The Strengthening Democracy Challenge is testing 25 crowdsourced, social media interventions to reduce anti-democratic attitudes, partisan animosity, and support for partisan violence. The team comprises political scientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists from Stanford, MIT, Northwestern, and Columbia, and the Civic Health Project, a nonprofit that funds research and practice to bridge partisan divides. The lab will see which interventions have a positive effect and aim to put these insights to use with social media platforms and through networks of bridge-building institutions.
The Digital Literacy Curriculum Lab connects Chicago Public Schools, the Los Angeles Unified School District, and the Stanford History Education Group. They will develop research-tested, online curricula to help students sort fact from fiction online. The lab will work with students, teachers, and administrators to tailor materials to the needs in each district.
RACIAL AND SOCIOECONOMIC INEQUALITY IN HEALTHCARE, HOUSING, AND SCHOOLS
The Health Care Fairness Impact Lab is a partnership between physicians, economists, and statisticians at the Stanford School of Medicine, Stanford Health Policy and Stanford Health Care. Together, they will focus on algorithms used to decide whether to admit patients to the emergency room and whether to refer a patient for chronic kidney disease treatment — two particularly high-stakes decisions where algorithms have the potential to exacerbate or improve health disparities.
The Changing Cities Research Lab includes the City of Oakland’s Department of Housing and Community Development and scholars and students from Stanford with sociology, math, and civil engineering skills. They will use data and analysis to understand how racial disparities and issues like tenant harassment and overcrowding affect where and how people live, whether they must move, and what happens afterwards.
The Equitable Access to Education in San Francisco team is a partnership between the San Francisco Unified School District and Stanford education and management, science, and engineering scholars. Together they will design tools to understand whether and how San Francisco’s new zone-based school assignment system reduces racial and wealth segregation between schools and helps students from across the city access better education.
The Improving Educational Equality in New York team includes the Educational Opportunity Impact Lab and the New York State Education Department (NYSED). They are working as partners to measure, monitor, and analyze why students have widely different access to educational opportunities and how the school system can reduce those disparities. The lab will use state-wide data about students, teachers, classrooms, and schools; develop equity indicators; and inform policymakers’ effort to implement their diversity, equity, and inclusion commitments.
TAX HAVENS AND ECONOMIC CONTAGION
The Tax Havens and Global Capital Allocation in Europe team includes the Global Capital Allocation Project and the European Central Bank.They’ll analyze and reclassify investment data so it’s not hidden in tax havens and researchers and policymakers can see where capital is flowing to anticipate and prevent financial instability. The team brings together researchers, policymakers and statisticians from the European Central Bank and finance and economics professors from Stanford and Columbia universities.
More, better, stronger opportunities for science and practice to improve lives
We received 39 letters of interest this year. They showed optimism and real opportunities for social science scholars, policymakers, and practitioners to combine their skills and experiences to address some of the biggest social problems — and schisms — in our society.
We’re excited so many proposals addressed massive issues like misinformation, financial flows through tax havens, and health inequalities. The best applicants focused on specific parts of the problem, proposed practical solutions developed in partnership, and had clear paths to large-scale impact.
"The letters of interest showed optimism and real opportunities for social science scholars, policymakers, and practitioners to combine their skills and experiences to address some of the biggest social problems — and schisms — in our society. The best applicants focused on specific parts of the problem, proposed practical solutions developed in partnership, and had clear paths to large-scale impact."
For some, that meant starting in one specific setting with clear hypotheses of how insights could inform scalable solutions or more systemic change. With increasing concern around the potential for algorithms to worsen health disparities, the Healthcare Fairness Impact Lab is testing new algorithms used in chronic kidney disease care against different measures of fairness in one specific setting. Our investigation into this investment revealed clear demand from practitioners who are excited about the possibilities of scaling insights developed in that setting to inform other areas where algorithms can reduce or exacerbate health disparities.
Other impact labs already include partners reaching massive scale. The Global Capital Allocation Project uses new data and methods to “see through tax havens” and inform specific European Central Bank policy decisions that affect the economic stability of nearly 340 million citizens in the euro area. The Empowering Diverse Digital Citizens Lab partners include the AARP, which reaches more than 38 million Americans.
"These paths from science to impact were some of the strongest we've seen. In response, we made the largest number of investments to date."
These paths from science to impact were some of the strongest we've seen. In response, we made the largest number of investments to date. We also took big bets against big problems where tractable progress is possible. Algorithms on social media can perpetuate polarization and incivility at a national and global scale. One lab is testing online interventions to reduce partisanship and polarization. We have a healthy skepticism about whether social media companies will adopt insights from such interventions, but if sufficient insider and outsider pressure aligns and even one large technology company adopts insights from their work, it could immediately reach billions of people. At the same time, the team is working to take their insights directly to the bridge-building organizations like the Civic Health Project working on polarization at the community level. With these two paths to change, we believe this is a bet worth taking.
Local, national, and international partners
This year, the Stage 2: Test Solutions recipients include 12 partners working on the frontline of these social issues. Some are in our home state of California, others are across the United States and in Europe. They include:
- School districts in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago, plus the New York State Education Department.
- A major health care provider, Stanford Health Care, that has 2 million outpatient visits per year.
- Trusted nonprofit media and civic organizations like the PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs and the American Library Association.
- Universities including MIT, Columbia, and Northwestern.
- The European Central Bank that manages economic and monetary policy across nineteen countries.
Stanford Impact Labs was founded on our belief that for innovations to work in the world, they must be designed and tested by both those with the very best research capabilities and those with first-hand experience putting ideas into practice. We only give Stage 2: Test Solutions funding to teams that already have strong research-practice partnerships in place when they apply. Our funding supports them to produce knowledge together, put knowledge to use and learn from those experiences together, and scale promising insights across multiple institutions and organizations.
"Stanford Impact Labs was founded on our belief that for innovations to work in the world, they must be designed and tested by both those with the very best research capabilities and those with first-hand experience putting ideas into practice. We only fund teams that have strong research-practice partnerships in place when they apply. Our funding supports them to produce knowledge together, put knowledge to use and learn from those experiences together, and scale promising insights across multiple institutions and organizations."
We were also thrilled to see five Stanford faculty members who participated in our impact lab design fellowship are part of teams that received Stage 2: Test Solutions funding this year to build new impact labs. They are:
- Antero Garcia (Graduate School of Education)
- Jeff Hancock (Department of Communication)
- Jackie Hwang (Sociology)
- Irene Lo (Management Science and Engineering)
- Alvin Pearman (Graduate School of Education)
The Stanford Impact Labs Design Fellowship gives faculty $50,000 and a year of workshops and one-on-one support from our professional staff to conceptualize new research-practice partnerships. It’s not a prerequisite for Stage 2: Test Solutions funding, nor does it factor into the investment committee’s decision. But it tells us the program is helping faculty develop compelling research-partnership approaches.
Expanding policy and community expertise in our investment decisions
At Stanford Impact Labs, we believe our own work and operations benefit when we include more diverse views, experiences, and perspectives. And that we need to break down traditional walls between academia, policy, practice, and communities.
We have always had an investment committee of leading academics, policymakers, and practitioners review and evaluate proposals. This year, it included people like Daryel Dunston, former homeless administrator for the City of Oakland and now senior director at the San Francisco Foundation; Mila Zelka, chief executive officer at Manzanita Works; and former Michigan health director Robert Gordon who has since been nominated for assistant secretary with the US Department of Health and Human Services. In addition, we had more than 50 expert reviewers from academia, policy, and practice help shape our understanding of each proposal and its potential for impact.
This year, we also ran three experiments to improve how we make decisions. For example, our process demands a lot out of short-listed applicants. Some argue that time spent on grant applications can be inefficient; others disagree! We take these concerns seriously and wanted to know what we should do in our context. We tested whether detailed investigation changed what we would have otherwise funded. Short-answer: it did!
We also tested changes to the type of information that goes into our investigation. To do so, we changed how we learn from those most affected by the social issues each partnership was seeking to address. For each proposal we recruited and provided compensation for additional reviews from leaders of community-based and advocacy organizations that work with and serve directly impacted communities. After the investment committee read the reviews and decisions were made, we asked if these reviews added new information that otherwise wasn’t available. All eight investment committee members said they did.
Investment committee members reported that they found that these reviews helped them to better understand the nature of the problem, and both barriers and opportunities for progress. For example, Eric Cuentos, senior director of family engagement at the nonprofit Mission Graduates, which works to help every child in San Francisco go to college, reviewed the proposal to increase equitable access to education by using research tools and analysis to inform San Francisco Unified School District’s (SFUSD) new zone-based school assignment program. He said, “I can’t think of any other decision SFUSD is making that will have more impact on schools ten years from now.”
These experiments gave us more knowledge about the proposals and their potential for impact. They gave us the confidence to fund eight teams this year, our largest group of investments to date.
The eight impact labs are already hard at work. And we’re setting the stage for the next round of investments. We owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to our program manager, Amy Cui, who has served as the backbone of this work. And we're grateful to our many reviewers who gave their time and energy to inform how we direct Stanford Impact Labs’ funding. Thank you!
As we look ahead, we’re asking:
- How do short-term investment decisions relate to long-term impact? Do teams that received our support perform substantially better at putting their science to work to benefit society than teams we were unable to support?
- What’s the right level and type of support for the teams we do invest in?
- How can we expand interest and generate more proposals for impact labs working on issues outside the United States?
- How can we support ongoing engagement between lab teams and community members?
Have a suggestion on the questions above? Interested in joining the next cohort of teams we support? Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com, and sign up for our newsletter. You’ll get the latest on investment opportunities, education and training programs, and insights from the impact labs we’re lucky to support.
Until then, we’ll close by saying if we had $4 million, we’d be rich… with promising new impact labs working to forge deeper partnerships and move ideas into action so more people thrive.