How can we predict impact?

Introducing The Field of Impact Science

Since social science research was first discovered 198 years ago, the field has struggled to define the meaning of “science” in social science.  The closest we have come to real science in social impact is establishing a scientific method, or randomized control trials.  But science is more than just a research methodology; true science is a systematically organized body of knowledge that enables prediction, replication, and generalizability.  And that’s where social science has fallen short.  We cannot build a field of science one PDF at a time, one study at a time.  As Bill Reilly, head of NIH’s Office of Behavioral Social Science, points out:

“despite numerous controlled trials of various interventions for a given problem, the field has little guidance on how to improve upon previously studied interventions, adapt them to specific populations, contexts, or delivery mechanisms, or streamline them to facilitate use in real-world settings with constrained resources. Behavioral intervention research cannot become a cumulative science that builds upon prior research until intervention studies can answer not only if the intervention changed behavior, but also how it changed behavior, and which intervention components were most effective in changing behavior.”[1]

Social science is by nature a retrospective, post-hoc analysis: looking back, after a program has fully run its course, to evaluate what happened.  But at some point, social science needs to be able to look forward - to predict, to generalize, to think in probabilities about the effects of a novel intervention. Absent the ability to predict, social science will never be a true science.  Today, so much of social science is focused on “internal validity” or perfecting the methodology of a single research study.  But to move forward, the field must turn its focus to “external validity” or the ability to derive generalizable conclusions from the corpus of past research. 

This is the promise of Impact Science.  Impact Science is to social science, what econometrics is to economics.  Similar to how econometrics employs statistics, math and modeling to forecast future economic outcomes, impact science seeks to “harden” social science by using structured data to forecast social outcomes.

The center's work is an exploration of the new frontiers in impact science: data standardization, decision science, probabilistic modeling, core components analysis, advances in meta-analysis, matching algorithms, and more.  We will explore cutting-edge and disruptive use cases for impact science in the form of new tools, systems and technologies for achieving social impact.  

To achieve its mission, the Center for Impact Sciences has four key priorities:

  1. Advancing core components research
  2. Developing probabilistic decision-making models
  3. Standardizing social impact data
  4. Advancing the “S” in ESG

Read about the Center for Impact Sciences in the news:

[1] Methodologies for optimizing behavioral interventions: introduction to special section, TBM 2014;4:234–237 doi: 10.1007/s13142-014-0281-0

The Center's Launch Event in Washington DC


Contact Us

To get involved or learn more about the Center for Impact Sciences, email Jason Saul.


Jason Saul

Executive Director, Center for Impact Sciences

Jason Saul

Jason Saul is one of the world’s leading experts on measuring social impact, advising corporations, federal agencies and philanthropies on how to maximize their impact.
John List

Associated Faculty and Academic Director, Center for Impact Sciences

John A. List

John A. List is the Kenneth C. Griffin Distinguished Service Professor in Economics at the University of Chicago. He received his B.S. in economics at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, and Ph.D. in economics at the University of Wyoming.


Harris Public Policy Announces Center for Impact Sciences

Harris Public Policy today announced the formation of the Center for Impact Sciences, an initiative to make evidence-based analysis more accessible and actionable for policymakers across all levels of government and the nonprofit sector.