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Q&A: Magnifying research impact with policymakers

Drew Story describes the MIT Policy Lab, which is designed to support researchers who aim to affect public policy.
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Drew Story stands on MIT's Killian Court on a sunny day, with grass and five columns of Building 10 visible behind him
“The vision for the Policy Lab is to deliver a return to society by getting MIT’s research and expertise into the hands of decision-makers around the country and around the world who are in positions to use it,” explains Drew Story, managing director of the MIT Policy Lab at the Center for International Studies.
Photo: Christopher Burns

The MIT Policy Lab at the Center for International Studies works with researchers across the Institute to develop and enhance connections between the worlds of academia and public policy. Led by Associate Professor Chappell Lawson, who serves as faculty director, and Drew Story, who serves as managing director, the MIT Policy Lab has supported over 110 policy impact projects to date. In this Q&A, Story discusses the purpose and motivations of the lab, its current projects, and his vision for leveraging MIT expertise beyond academia.

Q: What is the Policy Lab and what do you do?

A: The Policy Lab is an impact magnifier for MIT researchers. When scholars want to see their work have an impact on public policy, we empower and support them to do just that. We scour MIT for policy-relevant research, work with researchers to develop policy impact plans, train researchers how to be useful to policymakers, and provide modest funding to facilitate engagement. I’m here to lower the barrier of entry into the world of policy and to reduce the friction in the hand-off from academic to policymaker.

Q: What was the original impetus to launch the Policy Lab at MIT?

A: To put it simply, policymakers aren’t reading academic articles. This means that, regardless of how impressive or transformative your work is in your field, your Nature paper, your JACS paper, your American Economic Review paper aren’t being discussed in city halls or in the halls of Congress. And for their part, researchers are typically not equipped with the training, the resources, or the institutional incentives to engage with policymakers. Nobody gets tenure because 15 mayors across the country implemented their recommendations for how to optimize traffic lights for less congestion and fewer accidents, though the people in those cities would certainly thank them. You can’t blame academics for chasing the metrics by which they are evaluated for tenure and promotion: papers, citations, grant dollars won, students graduated, patents, etc. But this has led to a chasm between academics and policymakers, so the Policy Lab was created to build a bridge across that chasm.

Q: How does the Policy Lab complement the work of the MIT Washington Office?
A: We work closely with the Washington Office, but our emphases and the resources we each offer to researchers are different. The Policy Lab engages with policymakers in any domain while the Washington Office is focused exclusively on the federal government. The Policy Lab works with PIs to proactively share their expertise or consider public policy implications in the design of research projects, while the Washington Office tends to contact individual faculty when the White House, a federal agency, or Congress has expressed an interest in a research area. The Policy Lab excels at working closely with individuals or small teams for six months to a year or more, while the Washington Office often brings together larger groups of faculty for shorter-term efforts to advocate for or advise on policy.

Q: How does the Policy Lab compare with similar offerings at other institutions?

A: Many other universities and scientific societies are trying to fill in these gaps as well. Some universities have policy centers devoted to certain topics, some universities have professional development programming to prepare a handful of researchers to engage in policy, and others have a traditional school of public policy. Beyond campuses, scientific societies try to inject researchers into the policy process via year-long fellowships. But no one (that I know of) has a model like the MIT Policy Lab, with dedicated staff, proactive and reactive capabilities, modular and customizable support for researchers, and an approach inclusive of all research disciplines and all policy domains.

Q: What are some of your current projects?

A: We’ve got an impressive array of projects right now: several in the realm of climate change policy, a project on restoring and improving supply chains in the wake of natural disasters, a project on childhood education in Haiti, a project on the environmental impacts of deep seabed mining, among others. Descriptions of our current and previous projects are all available on our website.

Q: How does your background inform your vision for the Policy Lab?

A: I’m an educator / PhD engineer with policy experience at different levels, who truly believes academia owes more to taxpayers than we’re currently giving them for their investment in our research. And this is not too different than the MIT mission statement that references serving the nation and the world, and bringing knowledge to bear on the world’s greatest challenges.

The vision for the Policy Lab is to deliver a return to society by getting MIT’s research and expertise into the hands of decision-makers around the country and around the world who are in positions to use it. Ideally, the Policy Lab would help enough PIs magnify the impact of their research that it prompts discussions within the Institute of how to improve the incentive structure of promotion and tenure to reward this type of real-world impact of research. But if the Policy Lab is going to serve all researchers at MIT, we will need to grow. Right now, 12 year-long projects are a full load for me. It would be incredible to grow enough to have a Policy Lab manager devoted to each school and the college.

Q: How can individuals at MIT take advantage of Policy Lab resources?

A: Anyone at MIT with PI status can submit a proposal for a Policy Lab project at any time. I’m more than happy to sit down and discuss policy engagement ideas with interested researchers, pre-proposal as well. Aside from formal projects, the Policy Lab runs research-to-policy workshops over IAP [Independent Activities Period] for anyone in the MIT community and has an online course on MITx available for anyone around the globe.

This article has been updated to more fully characterize the work of the MIT Washington Office.

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