How Crime Lab uses academic research to impact public policy

Through local partnerships, UChicago researchers address problems in cities, schools

When Prof. Jens Ludwig thought about joining the University of Chicago more than a decade ago, he kept returning to an off-handed remark from a future colleague.

“Chicago’s a big city, and it’s a broad canvas,” Prof. Harold Pollack had told him.

Ludwig had already built a reputation at Georgetown University as a leading scholar of urban policy and gun violence. But Pollack cast Chicago as a place with a community deeply invested in local outcomes—a welcome change from the federal policy focus of Washington, D.C.

That initial conversation gave birth in 2008 to the UChicago Crime Lab, which applies rigorous scholarship to real-world problems, working in close collaboration with city government. With their colleagues, co-directors Ludwig and Pollack have helped transform the way that academic research can impact effective policy-making by using a combination of randomized controlled trials, behavioral economics, and predictive analytics.

Crime Lab’s mission grew out of tragedy. In November 2007, UChicago PhD Amadou Cisse was shot walking near campus in a robbery, one of 443 homicides in Chicago that year. The 29-year-old’s death followed other disheartening news. Six months earlier, the Chicago Tribune had published the names of 27 Chicago Public Schools students killed during the school year. A few weeks later, that number grew to 31.

“At the time, it felt like the city was in an existential crisis,” said Roseanna Ander, Crime Lab’s founding executive director.

The violence, Ludwig added, sparked “soul searching” at the University: What was the school’s responsibility to its community? And what was the best way to achieve such goals?

“What great universities are good at doing is research,” said Ludwig, the Edwin A. and Betty L. Bergman Distinguished Service Professor at the Harris School of Public Policy. “I thought, ‘Why don’t we use research and science and data to try and understand how to solve these problems?’”

A decade later, the work of Crime Lab has inspired a White House initiative, spawned partnerships in Chicago and New York, and drawn tens of millions of dollars in support from local philanthropists and sports teams. It has also produced articles in the Quarterly Journal of Economics and Science, been written about in The New York Times and Washington Post, and trained pre-docs and post-docs who have gone on to academic positions at the University of Pennsylvania and University of Michigan.

At the heart of that success is a willingness to lean on the expertise of nonprofit and civic institutions.

“The work we do is co-producing the evidence,” Ander said. “It’s a true partnership from the get-go. We’re working with the policymakers and practitioners who have such extensive experience with these problems—leveraging their insights and expertise rather than coming to them with fully baked ideas.”

“Within the social sciences, there’s a big divergence between what academic journals care about and what will actually make the world a better place,” Ludwig added. “Because of that, lots of people in government have not found their interaction with social scientists to be very helpful. We encountered a lot of skepticism.”

Ludwig first bounced his idea for Crime Lab off Pollack, the Helen Ross Professor in the School of Social Service Administration. With support from then-SSA Dean Jeanne Marsh and then-UChicago Provost Thomas Rosenbaum, they secured seed funding to launch a fledgling operation.

The next step was to hire Ander, a Joyce Foundation program officer who already had relationships with potential partners around the city. What Ander saw in Chicago wasn’t a dearth of innovative ideas for reducing crime. Although people and organizations were constantly trying promising strategies, there wasn’t a way to assess and learn from the impact of those efforts. That’s where Crime Lab could step in, collecting that data from various government and non-profit agencies that could “only see a piece of the elephant.”

Assemble all those parts together, and a more nuanced and complicated picture of crime and violence emerges.

Crime Lab connected on its very first large intervention. Collaborating with nonprofits Youth Guidance and World Sport Chicago, they conducted a randomized controlled trial to test Becoming a Man—combining the counseling and cognitive behavioral therapy program with an after-school sports component for more than 800 boys during the 2009-10 school year. BAM was founded in 2001, but UChicago helped prove its efficacy, attributing a 44 percent decrease in violent crime arrests to the program in that first study.

In February 2013, President Barack Obama visited Chicago and participated in a BAM group. When he launched the My Brother’s Keeper initiative a year later from the White House, he reiterated the importance of “looking at the actual evidence of what works,” not just relying on good intentions.

“We felt fortunate to partner with the Crime Lab to build gold-standard evidence of our BAM program’s impact,” said Michelle Adler Morrison, CEO of Youth Guidance. “Ultimately, the research conducted by the Crime Lab opened doors to scaling such that we are now touching the lives of thousands of additional youth in Chicago and have launched BAM in Boston.”

BAM was one example of how Chicago nonprofits were trying to address violence in innovative ways—meeting and supporting youth where they already were.

“If you think about how we as a society want to control crime,” Ludwig said, “it’s clear that what we most want is for people to not commit crime in the first place because we’ve helped put their lives on a much better trajectory.”

That early success with BAM also became a way for other partners to see the value of working with Crime Lab.

“We got a little bit lucky,” Ander said.

Crime Lab has only grown since. Follow-up studies on BAM reinforced initial findings, revealing a 35 percent decrease in total arrests and a 19 percent increase in on-time high school graduation. In 2014, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration asked the Crime Lab to open an office in New York City. In early 2017, the Chicago Police Department began building Strategic Decision Support Centers, embedding Crime Lab analysts in the city’s high-violence districts where they could use data to improve response times to shootings and refine crime reduction strategies.

Others have noticed as well. The MacArthur Foundation has awarded Crime Lab more than $8 million in grants since 2011, including a $1 million MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions in 2013. In both 2017 and 2018, the Chicago Bears, Blackhawks, Bulls, Cubs and White Sox gave $1 million toward violence reduction, acting collectively for the first time as the Chicago Sports Alliance. And last April, University Trustee and philanthropist Ken Griffin gave $10 million, enabling the Crime Lab to help CPD expand effective programs and provide officers with training and support to serve their communities.

As Crime Lab alumni move on to jobs in government or academia, they can also spread a deep appreciation for the power of data and science to do social good.

This year, the Harris School became the new academic home of UChicago’s five Urban Labs: Crime, Education, Health, Poverty, and Energy & Environment. In partnership with the Harris School, Ludwig and his Crime Lab colleagues will continue to search for novel policy solutions, with the hope of scaling interventions across the largest cities in the United States.

“It was a couple of guys in a room when it started,” Pollack said. “Jens and Roseanna, they really put their heart and soul into this. Now, I’m astonished at the growth. The idea that it would be a multimillion-dollar institution with a big staff—I could not have imagined it would have the impact that it’s had.”