A ‘makerspace’ for public policy opens at Yale

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ISPS Director Jacob Hacker, Yale President Peter Salovey, and Andrew Papachristos, associate professor of sociology, mark the opening of ISPS's Policy Lab, which provides students the resources to research and develop public policy. Papachristos is directing the new lab. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

A new lab opening at the Institution for Social and Policy Studies (ISPS) will provide Yale students with the skills and resources needed to study and solve public policy problems that affect communities in New Haven and beyond.

“Think of it as a policy-idea incubator that allows students to learn from policymakers, dive into policy questions through data-driven investigations, and ultimately take their ideas from paper to practice,” said ISPS Director Jacob Hacker. “With the lab’s opening, we’re poised to help improve local policy initiatives and make New Haven a national model of research-community partnerships.”

Located in a newly renovated space at ISPS’s Prospect Street offices, the Policy Lab is already forging partnerships between Yale students, community members, and government officials to address a wide range of policy issues, including gun violence, education, criminal justice reform, and access to nutrition, among others. 

During a reception on Jan. 23 celebrating the lab’s opening, Yale President Peter Salovey praised the lab for uniting people across disciplines and campus boundaries to address common problems.

“The Policy Lab links people across fields. It links our university to our home city, our state, and our nation in exciting ways,” he said. “It provides the vehicle for creating a more unified Yale.”

Salovey compared the Policy Lab to the Yale Center for Engineering Innovation and Design, a workshop — or “makerspace” — where students are provided the space and resources to design and prototype new devices and technologies.

“The policy lab is our makerspace for the social sciences,” he said. “It provides students the chance to roll up their sleeves and see if their research and ideas can change the way we live.”

Policy Lab Director Andrew Papachristos, associate professor of sociology, said the lab’s researchers are producing “rigorous and bold research” focused on solving real-world problems.

“This is going to be a place where you learn how to study and how to solve, but with an equal focus on both,” he said.

Hacker, the Stanley B. Resor Professor of Political Science, said the lab embodies ISPS’s mission to advance research, shape policy, and develop the next generation of leaders. It builds on efforts over the last several years to provide research opportunities to graduate and undergraduate students and to create faculty-led research centers focused on the study of specific policy areas, such as healthcare and inequality, he said.

“In some ways, the Policy Lab is not so much a new program but a way to bring together all of these things we’re doing into one physical space,” he said.

Papachristos said the lab is dedicated to pursuing the truth, regardless of whether conclusions run contrary to preferred outcomes.

“You have to walk into this space with the willingness to be wrong,” he said. “Policy research does not work if you’re not willing to be wrong.”

Among several research projects underway are a study of educational mobility in New Haven; an analysis of food insecurity in the city aimed at developing guiding policies to improve access to nutrition; and an examination of the causes of police misconduct and potential methods for preventing it, Papachristos said.

Student researchers are working with the Yale College Council to assess employment opportunities for students on campus. They are also working with Dwight Hall at Yale to create a method for evaluating an education program that Yale organizations are launching in Connecticut prisons next summer.

The lab this week issued its first working paper, an analysis of the ages of gunshot-wound victims treated at Yale New Haven Hospital from 2003 to 2015. The paper was coauthored by Tina Law, a graduate student in the Department of Sociology; Simone Seiver, an undergraduate pursuing bachelor and masters degrees in political science; Pina Violano, injury prevention coordinator at Yale New Haven Hospital; and Papachristos.

They found that gunshot victims in New Haven are 27 years old on average and that the average age of fatal gunshot wound victims is 31. They identified trends showing that the average age of black gunshot wound victims increased by about two years over the study period from 24.4 to 26 years old. The average age of Latino and white gunshot wound victims jumped nearly eight years and nine years, respectively, from 21 to 28.7 years old and from 23 to 31.5 years old.

The findings challenge the common view that urban gun violence primarily affects young people in their teens or early 20s. They can be used to guide policies to prevent gun violence and better support gunshot wound victims, Papachristos said

Seiver said the Policy Lab teaches undergraduates tangible skills, such as learning to write with coauthors.

“I think in most classrooms, in most undergraduate settings, you write alone,” she said, adding that the experience of collaborating on writing and analysis will prove helpful as she moves forward in her academic career.

Law said the project demonstrates the kinds of collaborations among Yale students, faculty and community partners that the lab is designed to promote.

“It’s a space to take ideas that happen in informal conversations into actionable knowledge, and hopefully, good solutions for a broad community,” she said.

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