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Stanford Impact Labs forges partnerships to tackle social problems

Amy Adams
Jul 7 2020

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The Bill Lane Center is pleased to be a part of the inaugural cohort of initiatves funded by the Stanford Impact Labs. Lane Center Director Bruce Cain, a professor of political science, is working with a team of Stanford researchers on climate change resilience, in collaboration with the Stanford Future Bay Initiative. A full description of the project can be found in the story below. Tackling regional problems is at the core of the Lane Center mission, and working with Future Bay affords the Center great opportunity to help local communities - particularly vulnerable ones -  become more resilient to the rapidly escalating effects of climate change.

Jeremy Weinstein, professor of political sciences, is faculty director of the Stanford Impact Labs, a new initiative that connects faculty studying social problems with community partners who work to co-create solutions. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Unlike medicine and engineering, which have strong research and development pipelines leading from scientific advances to practical innovations, the social sciences lack a similar infrastructure, slowing the rate at which data and insights generated by social science research shape the design of new solutions.

That’s the gap addressed by the Stanford Impact Labs (SIL), an accelerator that arose as part of the university’s Long-Range Vision. SIL’s goal is to maximize the impact of the university’s research and engagement on social problems through partnerships with the public, private and social sectors. The initiative (formerly called Social X-Change) models what a new R&D pipeline – one with significant investments in promising partnerships, a cadre of professional staff, and innovative training and education – could look like. When the investments yield compelling solutions, SIL works with faculty and their external collaborators to scale those innovations to other contexts around the country and the globe.

“We want to make Stanford as vital to innovation around social problems as it is to innovation in the life sciences, business and engineering,” said Jeremy Weinstein, professor of political science in the School of Humanities and Sciences, who is the faculty director of the initiative.

Connecting research and practice

The social sciences are at an inflection point in terms of the kinds of data they are now able to collect, and their potential for societal impact, Weinstein said. Meanwhile, leaders in the public, private and social sectors are looking for evidence-based solutions. “There is an enormous disconnect between those who generate scientific knowledge about social problems and the users of that knowledge,” he said. “We have a unique opportunity to close that gap.”

SIL forges that connection by training faculty who want to apply their research to social problems, and by funding faculty-led initiatives, called “impact labs”, to co-create solutions with external partners. They are also working with the Haas Center for Public Service to place faculty with public and social sector organizations as part of a “leaves in service” program, and are launching a training program for fifteen graduate students to participate in problem-focused research with an affiliated impact lab over the summer.

During the 2019-2020 academic year, SIL funded the first round of a year-long fellowship program that provided a cohort of faculty with skills and resources to tackle issues in collaboration with partners in the community. The group attended sessions on identifying stakeholders, building a theory of change, creating partnerships and designing an organizational model, among other tools needed to start or accelerate their own impact labs.

Faculty in the first cohort focused on a range of social issues including food insecurity, gentrification, the impact of technology on young people, racism, gender-based violence, teacher retention and the role of community colleges in providing new skills for workers.

Climate change resilience

As with other disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes or volcanoes, the effects of climate change, including increased wildfires and flood, will disproportionately impact marginalized groups. Jenny Suckale, assistant professor of geophysics, is leading a collaboration between the Stanford Future Bay Initiative and local, regional and California state-wide partners to understand the possible outcomes of climate change in these communities and develop equitable adaptation strategies. “Communities know a lot about the problem they struggle with, what is holding them back and how they could move forward,” she said. “Rather than me coming up with a solution that I try to enforce, we sit down and have a dialogue as equals.” The group will work primarily with the homeless or those on the verge of homelessness, two communities that tend to be left out of climate change mitigation planning.

Gabrielle Wong-Parodi, Earth System Science; Jack Baker, Civil & Environmental Engineering; David Grusky, Sociology; Bruce Cain, Political Science; Derek Ouyang, lecturer, Geophysics.


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