Q&A with Jeremy Weinstein: How to Close the Gap between Social Science and Public Impact

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Stanford Impact Labs launched in 2019. Founder Jeremy Weinstein explains why new investments and a new approach are needed to make progress on social problems.

What is Stanford Impact Labs?

Stanford Impact Labs is a transformational model to harness and deploy advances in science to improve the strategies of public, nonprofit and private sector institutions to tackle social problems in the United States and around the world.

It’s built on the model of research and development, or R&D, in other sectors. When you’re developing new innovations that might actually work in the world, you need to identify hypotheses, test them in real-world settings, learn from those tests, and scale those insights into the world of practice.

Stanford has a long history of showing what it looks like to build working R&D models -- in engineering, we drove the creation of Silicon Valley and in the life sciences, we played a major role in creating the field of translational medicine. It’s striking we do not have a working R&D function for tackling social problems in our society. Neither universities nor government have stepped up to the plate to show how this can be done.

What social problems do you focus on?

At Stanford Impact Labs, we don’t focus on a single problem. We think of ourselves as more like a hospital. The world is full of social problems, and we need an infrastructure that enables us to deploy expertise and capability  to respond to problems when and where they exist and persist. And we need to invest our resources where there are the biggest opportunities to use science to change practice to have a positive impact in people’s lives.

 What that means is our investments will be highly diversified. We’ll invest in a wide variety of social problems—some domestic, some international, some local, and some at the state and federal levels. We’ll align resources behind leading faculty who are working on critical contemporary problems including, among others, poverty and social mobility; inequities in health and education; and polarization and the challenges of democratic governance. But we’ll do so when the importance of the problem is matched by a promising partnership that brings together leading scientists and practitioners with a compelling theory of change. 

So far, we’ve invested in start-up impact labs working with state of Washington on early childhood development, San Francisco police chief on police-community relations, the county of Santa Clara on pretrial incarceration, nonprofits working with homeless people affected by flooding and fires and climate change, and the California public utilities commission on energy policies

 Why did you create this model for public impact?

For me it’s been a long journey as both a scholar and a practitioner—two identities I’ve struggled to bring together in a single career. As a scholar, I’ve been deeply committed to the social scientific study of poverty and conflict in developing countries. All the research I do is motivated by a desire to understand these issues and identify practical insights that might be useful to reduce poverty or mitigate the consequences of violence. But I’ve often found that my instinct and desire to focus on impact beyond the university has not always been welcomed.

It’s meant that I’ve developed a second identity as a practitioner driven by the desire to have an impact. I took time away from traditional scholarship to work in think tanks, on political campaigns, and to serve in senior roles in the Obama administration. In these roles, I’ve come to understand the perspective of those with the responsibility for making decisions about public policy. And I’ve been profoundly moved by the opportunity these positions afford to drive policy decisions and allocate resources that matter for hundreds of thousands, and sometimes millions, of people. But in these environments, I’ve also often been frustrated by lack of attention to analytical rigor and scientific evidence in our decision-making. 

Throughout my career, I’ve been trying to find a way to integrate a deep and profound commitment to science with an appreciation of the role it has to play in shaping practice. Stanford Impact Labs is a model for how we can do this. It creates new pathways for faculty, staff, and students to bring their analytical capabilities to bear on today’s most challenging social problems, working in partnership with leaders outside the university to achieve impact. Maybe that doesn’t sound radical, but in fact, it’s a huge reimagination of the role of social sciences, and the role of higher education in the 21st century.

What else is different about this approach to university scholarship?

The first universities were designed some 800 years ago to foster ideal conditions for the pursuit of knowledge. This meant freeing people from the burdens of daily life and society and creating an unencumbered space where they could study and think. But solving problems in the world we live in today demands a far more collaborative and engaged form of science. This is a new frontier of social science but most universities are not positioned to support it, even while they face growing criticism they are out of touch with the communities and issues that surround  them.

Two years ago, when Stanford began its long-range planning process, the president and the provost heard an exciting message from social scientists spread across the university: they want to see a commitment to public impact and to working in partnership in collaborative ways that marry the talents of scholars and practitioners.

We know that if you have the ambition to test hypotheses to make progress on social problems, the relevant laboratory for you is the world. It’s a living lab. To do that, you have to engage in real-world settings: schools, clinics, and communities. And you have to do it in a way that builds deep partnership that brings legitimacy, structure, and shares power with those affected by these problems. Stanford Impact Labs is a model to invest in those practical, problem-focused partnerships and push our capabilities outside the walls of the university.

How is it going so far?

Since we launched in 2019, the demand to engage has been extraordinary. We see it from faculty, students, and leaders in government, business, nonprofits, and philanthropy.

Faculty across the university are applying to start what we call impact labs and they’re signing up for our fellowships to develop new skills that will enable them to achieve impact outside the university. We’re impressed by the number of teams coming together with partners in local nonprofits, state governments, and major international companies and organizations.

Students are also eager for ways to master the skills of this century—in data science and computation—and deploy them on behalf of the perennial problems of our society. They want to pursue STEM and social science expertise throughout their schooling so that when they graduate, they can apply those skills to practical, social problems that affect our economy, society, and daily life. That’s why we’re developing a new undergraduate major in data science and social systems. 

And there is a whole ecosystem of leaders in philanthropy, the civic sector, and nonprofits who believe in policy and social change that uses science can get better results for the people they serve. They tell us what they need most are partners on the scientific side who can work with them over a long-term period to identify and tackle social problems together. That’s what we offer them and there’s tremendous excitement.

What should people outside the university know about your work?

We are up and running. While we’re still growing our team and the financial resources we know are needed for an endeavor of this scale, we’ve made an initial round of investments and are excited about their progress. We’ll be announcing a call for  the next round of investments in spring 2021.

Besides our start-up lab investments, we have been working with the Silicon Valley Recovery Roundtable, a 100-day effort convened by San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo with 59 business and community leaders tasked with guiding Silicon Valley’s recovery from the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is just one way we can use our infrastructure and network for timely, relevant research for public impact.

We want to hear from you about the opportunities you see and the questions you need to answer to do right by the people you serve. Reach out via an email to stanfordimpact@stanford.edu, tell us what you’re interested in, and how Stanford Impact Labs can work in partnership with you to generate and use new scientific insights to benefit more people in our society.