Groundbreaking research holds vast potential for reshaping our lives. Yet, translating those discoveries into practical solutions that benefit society comes with challenges. Stanford Impact Labs (SIL) is championing new models of investment and training to address some of those challenges in an effort to make tractable progress against some of society's most pervasive social problems and evolve what’s possible in social science research.
Research-practice partnerships sit at the heart of SIL’s unique approach—leading social scientists to venture outside traditional silos between research and policy as they work collaboratively to design and test innovative solutions to real-world problems. These partnerships take early-stage ideas into the field, where teams deepen their understanding of the problem landscape and the context in which an intervention will take place – gathering data and evidence along the way.
By funding teams that work in this way (tackling social problems in partnership with practitioners from the public, social, and private sectors), SIL aims to bridge the gap between academics and external change agents and demonstrate the case that research informed by real-world needs and contexts is the kind of public good universities can – and must – offer more of.
By design, SIL is an accelerator – an initiative created to help academics convert research findings into programs and policies and then implement these solutions. By identifying bottlenecks that may trap research on the page or in the lab or at a conference, accelerators help scientists push past where critical studies get lost and open up avenues for putting insights to use.
“The shift to the accelerator is a shift in culture, a shift in focus, and I think it is badly needed,” said Stanford University Professor of Medicine Stephen Luby in a recent Stanford Magazine feature that takes a closer look at the four accelerators pushing new frontiers at Stanford.
With funding from SIL, Luby's BRICK Lab team (which includes partners at Stanford and in Bangladesh) has worked to pinpoint unregulated kilns used in brick manufacturing as one of the country's greatest contributors to childhood pneumonia. One of SIL’s portfolio of Stage 2 impact labs, BRICK Lab focuses on testing a cost-saving approach to drastically reducing air pollution from brick kilns in Bangladesh. The team has found that strategies like stacking unbaked bricks to improve airflow or increasing the ash used to insulate the kilns reduced coal use drastically and produced more high-quality bricks while costing the kilns little-to-nothing in revenue.
These low-cost strategies brought brick kiln owners—many of whom wanted to reduce air pollution but could not afford the tools to do so—into the solution. In a political environment where strict enforcement would have likely failed, Luby's team offered a solution that could work on the ground, resulting in 60% of kiln operators continuing to use these approaches. For Luby, SIL opens a window outside the ivory tower, inviting his team to examine the social context of the problem and navigate the levers for policy change. “In traditional academia, you never have to work on solutions,” said Luby. “You can just define problems and talk about how deep difficult problems are.” BRICK lab is now conducting a 300-kiln trial to show these findings work at a larger scale.
For too long, scholars and policymakers have inhabited separate realms – arguably strengthening the status quo expectation that change stirred up by universities usually happens through published papers, working groups, or public communication via Op-Eds and media interviews.
Yet in a climate desperate for actionable solutions to political, social, economic and environmental challenges, outwardly communicating to policymakers about research that can lead to progress is no longer sufficient. If impact is the goal, supporting academics as they engage with policymakers and practitioners is key to reconciling the disconnect between researchers and the issue areas they study.
Reema Saleh is an independent writer, journalist, and digital media producer. Her work appears in the Chicago Reader, South Side Weekly, Chicago Review of Books, and other outlets.