When engineers describe how an idea becomes a product, we say that it moves from “lab to market.” It’s a clean, concise way to capture what in reality can be a messy, arduous, and unpredictable path to success.

Melissa Nobles, Kenan Sahin Dean of MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, and former head of our Department of Political Science, sees a compelling parallel in the work of MIT’s social scientists whose ideas move from “research to policy.” As social scientists conduct research to inform policy, they iterate. They prototype. They optimize. And in the end—like everyone at MIT—they aim to make a positive impact in the world.

Across campus, in all five schools, MIT’s faculty, researchers, and students are grappling with tough policy questions that affect the entire planet. From artificial intelligence and cybersecurity, to health care and energy efficiency, we’re applying the Institute’s “mens et manus” ethos to assessing existing policies and advancing research that informs new ones, for the betterment of humankind.

Take, for instance, MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), a network of 158 affiliated professors from 49 universities working to reduce global poverty. To determine which poverty programs are actually making a difference, in the US and around the world, J-PAL tests them through the gold standard of double-blind randomized evaluations. Just as a biologist assesses the efficacy of a new vaccine, J-PAL’s researchers experiment, gather evidence, evaluate the results, and optimize the policy—MIT at its finest.

As you’ll read in this issue of Spectrum, J-PAL has launched an initiative to partner with governments to design and evaluate policies more broadly. From improving education in Zambia to fighting crime in Brazil, J-PAL is now applying its trademark rigor to complex policy challenges beyond global poverty—and in the process, showing the world that optimizing for impact is how we do just about everything here at MIT.


L. Rafael Reif

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