ISPS marks 50 years of supporting research, shaping policy

Yale President Peter Salovey addresses the 50th anniversary celebration for the Institution of Social and Policy Studies.
Yale President Peter Salovey addresses the 50th anniversary celebration for the Institution of Social and Policy Studies. He praised ISPS for producing data-driven research that can shape public policy. (Photo credit: Harold Shapiro)

Speaking at the 50th anniversary celebration of Yale’s Institution for Social and Policy Studies (ISPS), Yale President Peter Salovey acknowledged that producing policy-relevant, data-driven research in the social sciences — the work at the heart of ISPS’s mission — presents challenges.  

Making social science relevant to policy doesn’t happen automatically,” said Salovey, speaking at an anniversary dinner held Dec. 13 at Atelier Florian, a restaurant on Chapel Street in New Haven. “You need to bring together people who understand data, who understand social science theory, who understand how policy is made, and get them collaborating on work that sheds light and exposes truth, rather than simply give voice to ideology.”

Salovey, a renowned psychologist, praised ISPS Director Jacob Hacker and the institution’s resident faculty and staff for their success in advancing interdisciplinary social-science research that addresses pressing public problems of the day, such as criminal justice reform, food insecurity, educational mobility, and controlling health care costs. 

How much more relevant could you be?” he said, adding that supporting policy-relevant social science is one of Yale’s top academic priorities.

ISPS was founded in 1968 to foster interdisciplinary collaboration in the social sciences. Today, the institution sustains a vibrant network of scholars and students interested in shaping public policy. It directly sponsors research by its resident faculty, research fellows, and non-affiliated faculty working in the social sciences in a variety of areas, including health care policy, race and inequality, and political polarization.

It supports specialized study centers, including the Center for the Study of American Politics, ISPS Health Policy Center at Yale, the Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, and the Policy Lab, a maker space that allows Yale students to conduct data-intensive research on policy issues affecting New Haven communities.

Apart from its research mission, ISPS offers educational programs for Yale graduate students and undergraduates, including fellowships, events featuring prominent scholars and policymakers, and the Program in Ethics, Politics & Economics, an undergraduate major.

One of the university’s jewels’

ISPS has had eight directors over its history, and the four most recent attended the anniversary dinner and discussed their experiences.

Joseph LaPalombara became director in 1987 during what he called a “tough time for ISPS and for Yale.”

The essence of this place was then as it is now to reduce the intellectual narrowness that goes with specialization,” said LaPalombara, the Arnold Wolfers Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Management.  

The home of the Institution for Social and Policy Studies, located at 77 Prospect Street.
The home of the Institution for Social and Policy Studies, located at 77 Prospect Street. (Photo credit: Michael Marsland)

LaPalombara recalled with pride that ISPS scholars became involved in addressing the AIDS crisis at a time when institutions and the federal government were slow to react to the deadly epidemic.

He said ISPS was influential in the creation of the field of environmental history, citing “Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West,” a widely acclaimed account of the development of 19th-century America by then-ISPS affiliated faculty member William Cronon.

LaPalombara credited ISPS’s staff for facilitating the institution’s work and programming — a point often repeated during the anniversary celebration.

We really did believe then that ISPS was one of the university’s jewels,” he said. “Like so much of what is at Yale today, ISPS has grown enormously in stature. I know I speak for all of you, and I certainly speak from the past, when I wish this institution, its director, its members, and its hard-working staff long life and happy discoveries.”

Bradford Gray, ISPS director from 1992 to 1996, focused his remarks on the Program on Nonprofit Organizations (PONPO), which was based at ISPS from its founding in 1977 to 2002.  It was the first academic program to focus on nonprofits as a distinct sector of the economy, he said.

Its founders, Yale law professor John Simons and the late Charles Edward Lindblom, Sterling Professor of Economics and Political Science and ISPS director from 1974 to 1980, had the foresight to realize that a broad range of tax-exempt organizations — charities, private universities, nonprofit hospitals — shared a set of issues, criticisms, and concerns that required scholarly analysis, Gray said.

PONPO had enormous impact,” he said, noting that scholars affiliated with the program produced about 250 working papers and set the stage for the hundreds of academic programs across the country that study nonprofits and philanthropy.

Its history says something important about the role of ISPS, particularly because PONPO was concerned with multi-interdisciplinary issues at the outset, and ISPS provided it a nurturing home, and it also provided a base for research scholars,” said Gray, who is currently board chair of the Hastings Center, a bio-ethics research institute.

Political scientist Donald Green at the ISPS anniversary event.
Political scientist Donald Green, who led ISPS from 1996 to 2011, pioneered the use of field experiments in political science research with his colleague Alan Gerber, Yale’s dean of social science. (Photo credit: Harold Shapiro)

Donald Green, director from 1996 to 2011, had no administrative experience when he was asked to take the reins at ISPS, and he was the only faculty member affiliated with the institution at the time.

I was basically asked to direct myself,” said Green, now the Burgess Professor of Political Science at Columbia University.

In remarks at the anniversary dinner, Green described the camaraderie he shared with the institution’s staff members, many of whom remain at ISPS and attended the celebration. He told an anecdote about an ISPS triumph over the Department of Economics in a dispute over parking spaces, and another about a foray to scout for potential office space complicated by a mountain of old mail blocking the doorway of vacant building on Hillhouse Avenue.

A research factory’

The morning after the anniversary dinner — during a daylong conference in honor of the 50th anniversary held at ISPS’s offices on Prospect Street — Green discussed the pioneering research he performed with Alan Gerber, the Charles C. & Dorathea S. Dilley Professor of Political Science, advancing the study of political science through field experiments.

It is easy to forget that when we launched our first field experiment here at ISPS in 1998, not a single field experiment had been published in any political science journal during the 1990s,” Green said, speaking on a panel about ISPS initiatives.  “The term ‘experiment’ does not appear in the state of the discipline political methodology volume from the 1980s.”

Green and Gerber’s early collaborations involved field experiments measuring the effectiveness of various “get out the vote” tactics, such as door-to-door canvasing, direct mailings, phone calls, and voter-registration leafleting. Their work triggered momentum for research based on field experiments. In 2002, Green launched the Experimental Initiative, which provides ISPS scholars and junior faculty with $75,000 grants to support field experiments. The work piqued the interest of senior faculty and synergy developed across departments, Green said.

Salovey, the Chris Argyris Professor of Psychology, received ISPS funding to support research he was doing using field experiments on methods for promoting healthy behaviors.

Green said the hands-on approach to supporting research with field experiments had two positive results: It provided ample opportunities to learn about a new research method in political science and produced a windfall of peer-reviewed journal articles.

It was a research factory,” he said.

ISPS Director Jacob Hacker at the anniversary event.
ISPS Director Jacob Hacker said the most rewarding aspect of his role is “to bring so many wonderful people together to do such amazing work.” (Photo credit: Harold Shapiro)

Hacker, the Stanley B. Resor Professor of Political Science, embraced the ISPS Experimental Initiative when he became director in 2011.

What ISPS tries to do is make it really easy for people to do high-quality research,” he said. “The Experimental Initiative provides resources to people who have good ideas without making them jump through a lot of hoops.”

Wonderful people, amazing work’

While ISPS does not have its own faculty — resident faculty are based in academic departments — it has managed to facilitate research via direct funding, assisting faculty in pursuing grants, and through programming, Hacker said.

The amount that you can do by facilitating the activities of others — particularly faculty grounded in social-science departments — has been a real source of strength, and it’s a reason why we can use our resources so effectively,” he said.

Speaking on the same panel with Green, Michael Sierra-Arévalo, assistant professor at the Rutgers School of Criminal Justice, described the training and support he received at ISPS while a member of its Graduate Policy Fellows Program.

Sierra-Arévalo, who studies policing, gangs, and violence prevention, said he learned how to engage in interdisciplinary collaboration through opportunities to discuss his work with Yale economists, historians, and psychologists. The program trained him on ways to share his policy-oriented research with a wider audience, including instruction on writing op-ed columns. ISPS also provided him resources to explore ideas, he said.

Jacob and ISPS took seriously the notion that $1,000 should not be the reason why an idea isn’t pursued, or a survey isn’t conducted, or you don’t travel somewhere and talk to people,” he said, adding that he could not have started his current work without that relatively inexpensive but crucial support.

Gregory Huber, acting director of the Center for the Study of American Politics, said ISPS’s collegial atmosphere promotes better research by simply giving scholars the chance to discuss their work before they complete it.

We spend a lot of time talking about research in that early stage. Someone may suggest a slightly different approach or an idea that you hadn’t thought of,” said Huber, the Forst Family Professor of Political Science. “It makes my work better, but it’s also a lot of fun.”

Hacker said the most rewarding part of his job is working with ISPS staff, which he called “the best at Yale,” as well as students and scholars.

The greatest thing I have been able to accomplish in this role is to bring so many wonderful people together to do such amazing work,” he said. 

Bradford Gray, Joseph LaPalombara, Donald Green, Yale President Peter Salovery, Jacob Hacker, and Alan Gerber.
Left to right: Bradford Gray, Joseph LaPalombara, Donald Green, Yale President Peter Salovery, Jacob Hacker, and Alan Gerber. (Photo credit: Harold Shapiro)

Salovey, in his address at the anniversary dinner, said ISPS will continue to play a critical role as Yale strengthens its work in policy-intensive social science research, citing the recent establishment of the Tobin Center for Economic Policy at Yale, the proposal to convert the Jackson Institute into a school of global affairs, as well as ongoing policy-relevant research performed at the School of Public Health and the School of Management. 

This is going to be the place, I believe, where students will learn how to do public-policy research without giving up one ounce of rigor either in their theoretical conceptualizations or in methodological approach,” he said. “That is going to be great for Yale because we will be recognized increasingly for this focus, but it will also be a great thing for all of us as individuals as it will put us in contact with one another in exciting new ways.”

For a better sense of the breadth and depth of ISPS-facilitated research, explore its online database

Media Contact

Mike Cummings: michael.cummings@yale.edu, 203-432-9548