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CASBS Awarded $1M Grant from Ford Foundation

The Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) at Stanford University recently received a $1 million grant from the Ford Foundation, enabling the Center to fortify its pursuit of key priorities and initiatives.

The funding will support and strengthen core features of the Center’s strategy as identified recently by an internal task force and outlined in its recommendations for “CASBS in the 21st Century.”

The award’s timing stems from a 2020 video conference call, in which Ford Foundation president Darren Walker personally invited CASBS director Margaret Levi to submit a grant proposal on behalf of the Center.

The Ford Foundation and CASBS share a storied legacy. Ford conceived of and established CASBS as an independent research center in the early 1950s as part of a post-World War II initiative to enhance understanding of human behavior and relations in addressing significant societal challenges. When CASBS merged with Stanford University in 2008, Ford again invested in the Center’s future.

The two organizations renewed their deep connection in 2017, when Ford awarded CASBS a grant in support of its core operations. That grant, in installments, amounted to affirmation of the reinvigorated and reimagined CASBS. A hallmark of that period involved the embedding into CASBS of collaborative, multi-year, multi-disciplinary, and multi-sectoral projects in service of collective knowledge generation to better confront contemporary societal problems and questions. In succeeding years that embedding process, thanks in part to Ford support, has become more durable.

The 2021 grant helps usher in the next phase of the Center’s evolution, allowing it to integrate aspects of collaborative projects development with innovations to its renowned fellowship program, including increasing the number of fellows associated with one or more projects each year. As suggested by the task force, those core elements will be buoyed by a menu of public engagement and outreach activities. Programmatically, projects based at the Center in 2021 generally engage one or more themes oriented around building equitable societies (crafting institutions, organizations, and networks to enhance societal and individual flourishing), promoting enactment of ethical technologies (creating, using, and regulating technology in service of our highest values), and ensuring sustainable livelihoods (responding to climate change and maximizing the long-term well-being of all species and their environments). In all these pursuits, the Center strives toward a rethinking of the social sciences, spearheading the development of better practices and tools for social science research to meet the needs of modern society.

“CASBS has an extraordinary history incubating ideas across disciplines — from behavioral economics to cognitive psychology to moral and political philosophy — that have reshaped how we understand society and human behavior,” said Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, chair of the CASBS board of directors. “Today the Center is working on bringing cutting-edge knowledge about society to a world grappling with climate change, rising inequality, and challenges to peace and security. This support from the Ford Foundation is critical in helping the Center intensify those efforts.”

The 2021 Ford grant represents a vote of confidence in the Center’s vision, ambition, and growth trajectory and a recognition of the nimbleness and flexibility CASBS will continue to exercise to meet the demands of emergent 21st century challenges and opportunities.

As new programmatic initiatives and outcomes beckon on CASBS’s short- and medium-term horizon in response to and anticipation of 21st century exigencies, one constant long-term thread mutually intertwines CASBS and the Ford Foundation in the past, now, and going forward: commitment to better understanding the determinants, consequences, and correctives for a variety of societal inequalities. Both organizations seek to identify the mechanisms for transforming beliefs, behaviors, and institutions to makes societies more equitable and socially protective. And both aim to catalyze collaboration with diverse constituencies and stakeholders in service of diverse and inclusive communities.

The importance and centrality of these shared goals was underscored during a June 2020 video call between Ford Foundation president Darren Walker and members of the CASBS staff, board, and 21st century task force. The call occurred just a few weeks after the tragic George Floyd killing and directly on the heels of Ford’s historic announcement and issue of $1 billion in “Social Bonds,” the proceeds targeted at accelerating the fight against inequality at a time when the most vulnerable were being hit hardest by the pandemic and multiple social injustices.

The sobering context, still casting its dark shadow today, instilled a sense of urgency to the lively, wide-ranging, and ultimately optimistic dialogue with Walker. He recognized CASBS as an agile hub and nucleus of forward thinking and idea generation – one that is well positioned to exert influence and animate the kind of longer-term transformational change that needs to occur at scale.

“In the course of rebooting ourselves for the 21st century the Center, increasingly, is reinventing the way social science is done and modelling new forms of collaboration that we hope will push larger, more siloed institutions to rethink themselves as well,” said Margaret Levi, CASBS’s director. “And we will do so in partnership with other institutes and organizations that share our goals.”

In the end, the hour-long conversation reaffirmed for Walker why CASBS is such a “mission-critical” organization, at one point remarking that if CASBS did not already exist, it would need to be created now.

“Thanks to the Ford Foundation, CASBS is not only still here after nearly seventy years, but stronger than ever,” said Levi. “And we’re building momentum and gaining real traction on some of the most complex problems of societal significance facing us today.”

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