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CASBS Secures Core Support from Ford

It’s back to the future for CASBS and the Ford Foundation. And that’s a very good thing.

CASBS owes its existence to the Ford Foundation. In the early 1950s the foundation launched a major intellectual initiative in the social and behavioral sciences. The last of five program areas endorsed in a 1949 “Report of the Study for the Ford Foundation on Policy and Program” called for strengthening of basic knowledge of “Individual Behavior and Human Relations.” This “Program V” concept eventually led to Ford’s establishment of CASBS,* embodying the foundation’s post-war optimism about the contribution of social science towards “advancing human welfare.” CASBS broadly was charged, “through scientific work, to increase knowledge of factors which influence or determine human conduct, and extend such knowledge for the maximum benefit of individuals and society.”

The institutional connection was so inextricable that a few early acknowledgments and references by fellows casually identify CASBS as “the Ford Center.” A sub-title in a September 26, 1954, San Francisco Chronicle article covering the opening of the Center also refers to it as the "Ford Foundation Study Project."

CASBS remains committed to the basic goals it was founded to serve. In a contemporary landscape of shifting means to best pursue those goals, CASBS and the Ford Foundation both acknowledge the importance of understanding the sources and consequences of societal inequalities. Both seek to identify points of leverage that can transform the norms, beliefs, institutions, and practices of our societies in order to make them more equitable, inclusive, and socially protective.

As a vote of confidence in the Center’s approach and guiding principles, the Ford Foundation recently approved a one-year core support grant of $450,000 to the Center. Furthermore, pending CASBS reports of its activities and accomplishments to Ford during the grant term, there is provisional agreement to extend the core support by the same amount for a second and third year.

"The Ford Foundation's support of CASBS goes back to the Center's founding, and we are delighted to support the Center's historic renewal, including the effort to make the most of the Center's position at a great university in the heart of Silicon Valley,” said Xavier de Souza Briggs, vice president of the Ford Foundation’s Economic Opportunity and Markets program. “We recognize the vital role of innovative discovery – of producing but also advancing cutting-edge ideas about some of the world's most important problems."

CASBS director Margaret Levi and Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, chair of the CASBS board, concur and are thrilled by the reestablishment of the Center’s link with its founding sponsor.

“Few institutions in the world can match CASBS’s singular and long-term focus on understanding human behavior and society,” said Cuéllar. “Our commitment to working across disciplines, and our location at Stanford in the heart of Silicon Valley, makes CASBS sensitive to the importance of major technological changes as well as technical solutions seeking to improve the human condition. CASBS remains focused on exploring the human and societal dimensions of such change. Ford’s support will strengthen the Center's capacity to leverage all the social sciences to become more focused on inequality and its economic, health, and societal consequences.”

The timing of the CASBS-Ford Foundation reunion could not be better.

For more than six decades, the Center’s renowned fellowship program has brought together an annual mix of distinguished thinkers – some of them luminary figures in the nation’s public and intellectual life – to facilitate pioneering research, typically through individual projects. As the historic cornerstone of the CASBS enterprise, the nurturing of such pursuits endures.

Traditionally, though, any new approaches and collaborations initiated at or by CASBS were more a side effect of the fellowship program than the result of dedicated efforts. Since Levi’s arrival in 2014, the Center has made great strides in actively reinvigorating Ford’s original mission for it. The new commitment has entailed a reimagination that better adapts to the way social and behavioral scientists work now. Under Levi’s leadership, the reformulated CASBS model emphasizes ongoing projects and networks on an equal footing with the traditional fellowship program.

In the 21st century, progress on theoretical, empirical, and societally important questions increasingly requires multiple perspectives and cross-disciplinary teams. Today, the Center operates as a magnet and principal convergence point for multi-year collaborative groups, projects, and networks focusing on major tractable problems. The idea is that multiple meetings over time enhance the prospects for major breakthroughs, and that bringing great minds together can generate collective knowledge and transformative outcomes that no individual could produce independently. The groups are both interdisciplinary and inter-sectoral, attracting world-class academics, industry leaders, and policy makers and analysts from the public, nonprofit, and private spheres. In short, CASBS serves as a greenhouse for innovative ideas and research. (Learn about some of the Center’s established and emerging projects and networks here.)

Logo of the Ford Foundation

Furthermore, research programs are no longer emerging exclusively from the inside-out; external collaborators are approaching CASBS with possible project ideas and asking it for help.

“We now are flipping how we think about social science,” says Sarah Wert, program director at CASBS. “Many new projects at the Center start from outside academia with the problems we want to understand.”

The Ford Foundation seems to agree that the CASBS “renewal,” as Briggs calls it, is working.

The beauty of the Ford Foundation’s support is its flexibility in helping the Center sustain its current growth, ambition, and focus on inequalities. In addition to exercising its nimble convening power, CASBS is now in a better position to attract the best scholars as fellows, enhance their support, and explore means to ensure that research findings are translated into policy and practice. Moreover, as both Briggs and Cuéllar note, the Center also will further leverage its integration with Stanford University and its location in Silicon Valley.

The leveraging is not an end in itself; it has a purpose: fulfilling the Center’s joint cause with Ford.

CASBS and the Ford Foundation both recognize the importance of improving society's understanding of inequality and justice, poverty alleviation, and democratic values. As one example, CASBS seeks to understand the sources and agents of change in various “moral economies” that shape societal obligations among populations, governments, and corporations. This includes, among other things, exploring the determinants of and possible correctives for political, economic, and social inequalities.

In this endeavor and others, says CASBS director Levi, “we are able and eager to forge connections and develop innovative approaches with real-world application and impact.”


Much more detail can be found in Arnold Thackray’s “CASBS: Notes Toward a History,” Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences Annual Report, 1984.

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