A Research-Based Approach to Crime Catches MacArthur's Eye

Scientific research and violent crime are two areas that don't have a ton of overlap. But that’s a problem, and one that the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab is trying to improve. The MacArthur Foundation sees potential in the lab’s use of scientific techniques to fight crime, and a $1 million grant to the lab is the latest example of the funder’s roundabout support for research.

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation is one of the largest private philanthropies in the world, and while its giving is rooted in social justice (seeking “a more just, verdant and peaceful world”), the execution is kind of all over the place. One area they do not explicitly fund, however, is science research. That said, by way of its many priorities, they do end up backing quite a bit of it. The Crime Lab grant is one example of that. 

The grant was part of the latest round of MacArthur's Award for Creative and Effective Institutions, in which seven organizations were chosen for their unique solutions to society’s toughest problems. Grants notably went to investigative journalism outfit ProPublica and a Canadian watchdog of online civil rights abuses. On the verdant front, ongoing MacArthur grantee NatureServe won for its monitoring of biological diversity. 

The Crime Lab program lives in the overlap of science and public policy, the sweet spot for MacArthur research funding. 

Preventing violent crime is usually a maddeningly unscientific endeavor, especially in the United States where our bloated incarceration rates do little to treat underlying problems. Crime Lab uses evidence-based, randomized trials rooted in basic science to help determine the best interventions for urban crime. 

“Our work is motivated by the idea that it is not a lack of innovation, good ideas or hard work that has hindered long-term progress on urban crime and violence and the related problem of school dropout, but rather it is a lack of rigorous scientific evidence about what works, for whom and why,” said Crime Lab Director Jens Ludwig, in a statement about the award. 

This is a prime example of the kind of project MacArthur likes to support on the research front—evidence-based investigation, usually in the social sciences, that aims to shape or evaluate public policy. 

Read more about the MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions here, and our IP guide to Macarthur’s giving for research here