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Director's Message, Fall 2016

Nov 14 2016

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Director's Messages

Last spring we held a meeting of the core participants in our working group on “The Future of Work and Workers.” We had exhausted the Rockefeller Foundation funding that covered our first year-and-a-half and had published more than 80 well-received short pieces in Pacific Standard. We discussed how and whether to proceed, what the special niche and contribution of CASBS might be to this now very popular subject. Our impassioned conversation, informed by multiple disciplinary and sectoral perspectives, led to an insight: What we really are discussing are moral economies, that is, the constellation of obligations among the population, government, businesses, and nonprofits that constitute a given society. There are multiple moral economies and social compacts throughout the world today and have been over history. How we understand the one we are in – in whatever country concerns us – is part of our challenge. Even more important is to understand the points of leverage to transform the norms, beliefs, institutions, and practices of our societies in order to make them more equitable, inclusive, and socially protective while also being relatively efficient, functional, and affo=rdable. In light of the recent election in the United States, Brexit, and the worldwide crises of both refugees and climate change, the Center’s overarching concern with moral economies feels right. Once again, the reciprocal obligations of citizens, governments, nonprofits and corporations are shifting and subject to debate, a debate that social scientists need to inform.

Like so many others, I woke up the day after the U.S. national election anxious and unhappy. But I also felt resolved to work hard on several CASBS initiatives that are even more important today than they were during our excellent and recent Center meetings about them. A terrific discussion on climate change mitigation and adaptation confirmed a partnership among some of our fellows and faculty affiliated with the Stanford Woods Institute on the Environment. A few days later a workshop on evidence-based policy opened-up new avenues for influencing policy. We continue, simultaneously, to have great projects on equalizing and smoothing learning and literacy, understanding the values and politics of the digitally native, combatting implicit bias and stereotyping, , improving our organizations – including our political organizations – and, of course, making sense of what is happening with work, workers, and the politics and economics that are ensuing. One constant leitmotif throughout is how we are shaping and being shaped by technology.

These are issues around which we must and can make progress – and to which social scientists have much to contribute. My hope is that our research not only improves our comprehension of the world we live in but also provides needed weapons in our ongoing – even intensified – battles for equality, inclusion, and clear well-informed thinking!

The class of 2016-17 is now in residence, and they are a strong and energetic collection of scholars. We are at full capacity, with 38 fellows, five visiting scholars, and seven research affiliates. As you can see from their bios, they are diverse in every possible way.  Yet they are discovering multiple bases for intellectual connections and synergy. Approximately one quarter of the class is affiliated with an ongoing project; all are mixing well and, indeed, adding to the mix of the class.

We are now realizing all I had hoped to achieve in my first few years as director, but we hope to do even more in the next five. The CASBS board chair, California Supreme Court Justice Tino Cuellar, offered me a useful metaphor, drawn from his reading of a profile in the New Yorker of Sam Altman of Y Combinator. The Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences will reinforce its reputation as the world’s foremost social science research institute by becoming an accelerator of the best social scientific ideas and thinking for understanding and improving the world in which we live.

But how to accomplish our goals? 

Continue to attract exciting and high quality thinkers. We are eager to accommodate challenging family and leave arrangements, ensure our stipends remain competitive, and find means to compensate for the high cost of housing in the area. Our endowment does not allow us to support a full fellowship class of 40 even at current stipend levels which, frankly, need to be raised. We have, nonetheless, managed to gain support for additional fellows this year through the Berggruen Institute (5 fellows per year for 5 years), the Stanford Cyber Initiative (1), Raikes Foundation/Mindset Scholars Network (.5), a Hewlett Foundation grant (2), and donor support for a fellow working on causal inference (1).  In the future, we will have an annual fellow supported by the Taiwanese government, another through the Presence project, and possibly one or two from Singapore.

Determine the best projects to fund and support. We now have in place an academic advisory committee and a set of criteria for determining current and future projects. Details will be available on our web site and in conversations with our program director, Dr. Sarah Wert. 

Integrate more fully with Stanford while maintaining our autonomous identity. The second is easy to accomplish given our history, location, and memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Stanford. A fuller intellectual integration with the university, which at first appeared daunting, has been remarkably successful.  Our fellows attract and seek interaction, facilitated by the Dean of Research’s funding of lunches for invited Stanford faculty. Most significantly, more and more units and researchers on campus are discovering the need for social science to solve the pressing questions they are asking, and they have been turning to CASBS for help. The Cyber Initiative, the Woods Institute for the Environment, the Presence project at Stanford Medicine, various other Stanford centers, and the professional schools have all formed partnerships with CASBS to jointly support fellows, workshops, projects, or our summer institute.

Upgrade our facilities to fit our programmatic goals. The Center was built on the model of private studies to which individual thinkers retreat from the world and each other to write “great books.” Today’s Center additionally emphasizes the kind of collaborative research essential to making progress on societally significant issues. Collaborations depend on technologically advanced meeting and working space both for small group interactions and for larger workshops and conferences. The lack of such space severely restricts our programmatic goals now and into the future.

A Day in the life of CASBS

A study group is in the small meeting room, a Berggruen Fellows’ seminar is in the big meeting room, and the Wilson Lounge is set up for yoga. Then four fellows try to find a room to discuss a possible project. They can’t use the library for a meeting, and they can’t hear themselves talk in the dining room.  If it’s lovely outside, the problem is more or less resolved, but only if they can find the movable white board and set it up to avoid glare and find an electrical outlet and spot (and good internet access) for a laptop to skype-in the person from Lancaster UK they’d hope to include. Otherwise, the current configuration of the campus has stymied their spontaneity and creativity.

CASBS is an exciting place. Over the last few years we have extended our reach beyond the bounds of academia to thinkers from the worlds of policy, journalism, tech, nonprofits, and business. They come to the Center for workshops and to try-out ideas for us to explore. We have secured numerous grants and increased private donations. We are in the process of becoming the intellectual accelerator we want to be, but it is a process that will continue to need attention, funds, and physical renovation to fully achieve our five year vision and the vision of our founders to use social science to make the world a better place.

Margaret Levi Signature