New Frontiers in Science R&D Are Shaping Our Next $10M of Investments
We’ve revamped our investment strategy. New funding stages support early-stage partnerships and two different models of science R&D funding. And we expect to invest $10 million in new funding in the next twelve months.
These changes reflect what we’re learning from funders like USAID’s Development Innovation Ventures and Arnold Ventures; exciting new literature on the effectiveness of science R&D funding; and our first three years of investing in teams of researchers, policymakers, advocates, and business leaders to put social science and practical experience to work for society. We’re accepting new applications, with stage-specific deadlines beginning on October 17th, 2022. Apply now!
Like many of you, we’re seeing big, new experiments from the U.S. government, Congress, nonprofit research institutions, public and private universities, and philanthropists to put science to better use for society:
- Bipartisan legislation — the CHIPS and Science Act — authorizing $280 billion for U.S. technology and innovation. And, as the Institute for Progress’ Caleb Watney points out, it permits the National Science Foundation’s new Technology, Innovation and Partnerships directorate to experiment with “diverse funding mechanisms and models at different scales.”
- New U.S. government Advanced Research Project Agency for Health (ARPA-H) launched with a $1 billion startup investment and modeled off similar initiatives in energy and defense to be nimble and support bold, novel new ideas that otherwise might not get funding.
- The joint Social Science Research Council and National Science Foundation’s $20 million Mercury Project to support social and behavioral science research and development to combat health misinformation and increase COVID-19 vaccinations and other health interventions.
- The Arc Institute, a new $650 million nonprofit research institution for scientific breakthroughs for complex diseases. Funders include Stripe co-founder and CEO Patrick Collinson who describes how he sees this as an attempt at “new ways organize science and enable curiosity-driven discovery”
- Big bet philanthropy like MacArthur Foundation, Blue Meridian and Audacious Project are willing to make grants of tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to bring solutions that are already evidence-based to a large scale.
Each reveals what we were thinking when we launched Stanford Impact Labs in 2019: we need new research and development models to tackle social problems. And those models — like those that turn biomedical discoveries into medical advances and new technologies people use — require significant financial investments and professional support. They also need curious, motivated, nimble partnerships between leading researchers and practitioners on the frontlines of social problems, to use science and practical experience to generate new solutions.
We’re excited to be among and learning from (and with!) many of those involved in these efforts. In three years, Stanford Impact Labs has invested $9.5 million in 19 new teams of university researchers and practitioners outside the university. In the next twelve months alone, we plan to double our total investments. We’ll do this while continuing to run our training and education programs for students, PhDs, postdocs, and faculty to support the people that will power the next generation of impact-focused research.
In building an R&D engine for society’s hardest social problems, we care a lot about strong, equitable partnerships and credible paths from science to impact. We’ve learned more about both in our first three rounds of investments, and from conversations with more than 40 leaders, we’re launching a refreshed investment strategy with some changes.
1. People and organizations need time, money, and professional support to grow meaningful, working partnerships.
We’re launching “Stage 1: Seed Partnerships” funding to do this better.
- We saw a gap between our design fellowship program which helps faculty conceptualize new partnership-based impact labs and our initial investments in new impact labs where we expected to see more robust, solutions-focused R&D cycles at the time of application.
- It takes time to build trust, a shared and nuanced understanding of the social problem, and to generate ideas for joint work and potential solutions to put to the test. But the evidence suggests that when it does happen in partnership, research is more likely to be put to use.
→ Bottom line: New “Stage 1: Seed Partnerships” investments provide up to $350,000 over two years for early-stage partnerships to better understand a social problem together and set the stage to design and test solutions together.
2. We’ve seen two successful models of science R&D funding at scale.
Our largest awards will reflect these two different approaches–laying the foundation for two models of how an NIH-level investment in R&D against social problem solving might look at-scale.
When we scan our own landscape we’re seeing two distinct models of science R&D funding:
- One focused on scaling interventions through stage-based innovation funds (also known as tiered evidence grants). One example of this is USAID’s Development Innovation Ventures (DIV), which provides up to $15m to transition evidence-based insights to scale. Kremer et. al. (2021) finds that this approach generated over $17 of social benefits for every $1 invested through DIV in its first three years of awards.
- Another approach to R&D focuses on supporting “people, not projects.” Examples include the Max Planck Society, the recently launched Arc Institute, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI)’s Investigator Program which aims to find some of the world’s best researchers and gives them the flexibility to pursue a research agenda of their choosing. These initiatives are fundamentally about generating more and better R&D cycles, for example, by allowing scientists to focus on their science rather than going through peer-reviewed funding applications, which have been shown to weed out novel proposals. Azoulay et. al, (2012) finds that HHMI’s funding model–which rewards long-term success with flexible, failure-tolerant funding–led to higher levels of breakthrough innovation when compared to similar researchers who received “project-based” funding from the National Institutes of Health.
These two models also reflect two different paths that successful research teams in the past have pursued:
- Some teams take a specific insight or solution and want to put it to use at scale.
- Other teams run multiple R&D cycles around a coherent R&D agenda focused around a common theme.
Based on what we’re seeing, and with the goal of aiming to model (and learn from) two distinct approaches, Stanford Impact Labs’ Stage 3 investments will include two tracks modeled off of these two approaches.
These are two distinct types of investments. They imply different selection criteria, different portfolio management strategies and distinct ways to think about what success looks like. We’re excited about both ways to “go big” and we didn’t want anyone to go home because we only anticipated one way to scale and not another.
→ Bottom line: “Stage 3: Amplify Impact” investments will provide up to $5 million over five years to a) teams that can scale one insight in more places or with more partners, and b) research teams that can run multiple partnership-based R&D cycles together across a common agenda.
Interested? Here's how to apply:
Our full portfolio of Stage 2 investments is on our website. You can also read more about our investments so far, including how external experts help us review and select recipients.
We’re accepting new applications, with stage-specific deadlines beginning on October 17th, 2022. Learn more about which stage is right for you and apply now!