Impact Lab Design Fellows Move Science Towards Public Impact

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2020-2021 Impact Lab Design Fellows Zoom Meeting

Ramesh Johari knew wearable glucose monitors and digital tools could transform Type 1 diabetes care. But the Stanford School of Engineering professor also knew those affected most by the chronic disease in the United States—Black, Hispanic, and low-income patients—were least likely to have access to the new technology and tools. He wanted to help change this, but like a lot of social scientists with big ideas for change, he didn’t know how to get started.

“The barriers to entry can seem so high,” he says.

That changed last fall when Johari started Stanford Impact Labs’ year-long Impact Lab Design Fellowship that gives academics like Johari financial and mentoring support to start working with partners to turn ideas into practical solutions.

In late May, Johari and eight other Stanford faculty who participated in the 2020-2021 design fellows program shared their progress. More than two dozen outside experts joined the presentations to give Johari and his colleagues feedback on their ideas and where to go next.

Faculty Director Jeremy Weinstein reminded external participants that Stanford Impact Labs was launched two years ago to build and invest in “use-inspired science” motivated by the questions and needs of government, civic, and community organizations:

"For the social sciences to be valuable and relevant, we need to ensure that the science we do is motivated by the questions and needs leaders in the world have. We need to be thinking about building much tighter connections between the work of scientists and the work of leading practitioners."

The fellowship is Stanford Impact Labs’ entry-level program for faculty with a research insight and motivation for public impact and in need of a platform to get started. Fellows are given $50,000 apiece to start the process toward identifying practical solutions and establishing a research-practice partnership. Over the course of a year, fellows attend monthly workshops with cohort members, complete practical assignments to help them develop their projects, and receive ongoing one-on-one mentoring from Stanford Impact Labs’ core team that brings practical experience in these collaborations. The program has supported 18 researchers to date, including an inaugural cohort of nine faculty members in 2019-20.

Each of the design fellows, Weinstein said, exemplified exactly what Stanford Impact Labs hoped to support: scholars who have a personal passion to make an impact beyond the university and are committed to working actively with leaders outside the university. The design fellows had taken practical steps, he said, to turn their ideas into a strategy for achieving public impact—even during a year of COVID-19 restrictions on in-person gatherings.

Johari says the fellowship’s regular virtual workshops and guidance from other faculty and Stanford Impact Lab staff was invaluable. “I started the year wondering ‘How do I get started, where do I go?’ To end the year thinking, ‘Now I need to focus on where I can have the most impact’ is a great feeling.”

Nine Visions Move Closer to Reality

The nine 2020-2021 Impact Lab Design Fellows have been working with external partners in school districts, government agencies, and community organizations to shape new approaches—and potentially new impact labs—to close gaps in education and healthcare, improve worker licensing and federal government staffing, and increase equitable access to water and low-income housing. The issues they are tackling include:

Closing gaps in education. Francis “Alvin” Pearman, assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education, is one of two fellows addressing school inequities. Pearman’s work starts with the recognition that homelessness, food insecurity, and immigration “increasingly show up at the schoolhouse door.” The Connect.ed project he envisions aims to transform the organization and management of urban schooling by enabling educational leaders to be more responsive to the needs of local communities. Among other features, Connect.ed aims to generate evidence-based research insights for communities; host an online hub for parents, schools and city governments; and use machine learning to spotlight issues that are top of mind for parents.

Expanding access to high-quality schoolsIrene Lo, assistant professor in management science and engineering, is focused on ways to ensure all 50 million U.S. public school children have the opportunity to attend high-quality schools with sufficient resources. Based on extensive work with the San Francisco Unified School District, Lo is exploring how those insights might be relevant to new partnerships in Boston, New York, and with other school districts. Lo is proposing to launch a Stanford Equitable Education and Access Lab to develop computational and visualization tools to improve processes for student assignments, transportation, scheduling, and facilities management. By also enabling students and their families to more proactively leverage educational resources, Lo and her team believe their work will help reduce racial gaps in educational achievement.

Improving federal staffing procedures. Since the Reagan administration, the process for filling top-level positions in federal agencies has become “cumbersome, inconsistent and at times controversial,” said Anne Joseph O’Connell, professor at Stanford Law School. O’Connell is working to identify ways to improve agency staffing processes and practices, with a particular focus on the use of acting officials in positions that require Senate confirmation. As a design fellow, O’Connell filed more than two dozen Freedom of Information Act requests to discover which agencies have the highest concentrations of acting officials, how long acting officials hold their positions, and whether they are political appointees or career employees. O’Connell hopes her work with partners in an outside government could inform practical changes to the rules and practices used to fill senior-level vacancies across the federal government. 

Streamlining worker licensing. Thirty percent of U.S. workers—from plumbers to barbers to fortune tellers—must be certified to do their jobs. Brad Larsen, assistant professor of economics, wants to help overhaul state and local occupational licensing laws that, while designed to ensure safety and quality, can be overly burdensome to workers and consumers. Many rules, he said, perpetuate social and racial inequality. And although all sides of the political spectrum recognize the problems, the lack of data-driven guidelines on how or where to begin hobbles reform efforts. Larsen aims to bring together policymakers and other key stakeholders to better understand the trade-offs and craft better, fairer policies.

Recognizing the human right to water. For many low-income communities in the United States, lack of water is a serious and persistent problem, said Sarah Fletcher, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering. In California, for example, one million people don’t have access to safe, clean, reliable, and affordable water. Climate change, she said, is only exacerbating the problem nationwide. In response, Fletcher’s Water Affordability & Access Lab is developing simulation models that will lead to new data-driven approaches for improving water management with less infrastructure and lower cost, helping to ensure quality water is accessible and affordable to all community members.

Rethinking low-cost housing. Drivers of the national affordable housing crisis abound: high construction costs, restrictive policies, and not-in-my-backyard attitudes, or NIMBYism, are among them. At their core, said Sarah Billington, professor of civil and environmental engineering, most barriers are about the lack of social acceptance of affordable housing proposals. To overcome that, Billington’s project focuses on buildings and their surroundings and how public perceptions are shaped by physical design. Through survey and eye-tracking research, her proposed Building for Wellbeing Lab aims to measure community responses to photos or other visual representations of different building types and labels to identify socially acceptable and environmentally-friendly affordable housing designs that may help to overcome NIMBYism and advance much-needed housing policies and programs.

Building inclusive immigration policies. The United States doesn’t have a federal immigrant policy to support immigrants once they are living in the United States and that troubles Tomás Jiménez, professor of sociology. Low-income immigrants and the 10.5 million who are unauthorized suffer the harshest consequences, he said. To address this need, the Lab on Immigration and Integration he envisions, is partnering with Welcoming America, a nonprofit working to build inclusive communities. They aim to collaborate with others and design research to better understand state and local immigration programs. The insights can then be used to reshape existing policies or design new ones that are scalable, including at the federal level. “There’s a lot of great work [on immigration integration] going on, but it is a patchwork and it is a patchwork that deserves to be examined,” Jiménez said.

Increasing access to health technology. Ramesh Johari, professor of management science and engineering, is one of two fellows committed to health equity. His focus is diabetes care and the promise of digital tools like wearable sensors and telehealth to transform how a disease that disproportionately impacts underserved communities, among them Black, Hispanic, and low-income patients. Working with Stanford doctors, researchers, and engineers, Johari has designed a unique approach to remote monitoring of patients with Type 1 diabetes—one that leverages technology to improve clinic workflows. Next up for Johari and his team: Proving the model can be cost-effective and scalable. And because technology has been shown to widen social disparities, Johari wants to make sure his solution is accessible to everyone.

An integrated approach to improve health equity. For her part, Sara Singer, professor in the School of Medicine, is looking to overcome barriers to health equity by analyzing why well-intentioned efforts within communities to address economic instability, inadequate education, and other social determinants of health often fail. According to Singer, these collaborations—often involving public, nonprofit, and for-profit entities—run into challenges of insufficient coordination, communication, and cooperation. Singer, who is also a professor by courtesy in the Graduate School of Business, is envisioning a Health Equity Collaboration Lab to work with cross-sector initiatives in Silicon Valley to help them overcome common challenges to collaboration, including the need for more input from the community to more effectively improve health equity in the region.

"I started the year wondering ‘How do I get started, where do I go?’ To end the year thinking, ‘Now I need to focus on where I can have the most impact’ is a great feeling."

Financial support and mentorship were not the only benefits the design fellows gained from their Stanford Impact Labs experience. “The camaraderie that we’ve developed over this year has been one of the more beneficial parts of this program,” Jiménez said at the start of his presentation. He described, too, his hopes for working with the next generation of researchers, starting with Stanford undergraduates, to help inspire in them a similar passion to “create a more harmonious American society.”

Krysten Crawford produced this article as a freelance journalist earlier this year.