Since World War II, the United States has developed a powerful medical research enterprise centered on federal funding sources like the National Institutes of Health — often nicknamed “Big Science.” But the norms of Big Science will have to be adjusted if we’re going to help society’s most vulnerable people.
That was the conclusion we took away from the Islandwood Science in Nursing Roundtable, a three-day interdisciplinary gathering where we guided thinkers from nursing, social work, and public health as they reckoned with the social determinants of health. Working in teams, participants developed future scenarios for nursing science, targeting strategic milestones that would need to be achieved in coming decades if we are to address the American population’s most persistent inequities.
“Human subjects research seeks insights into standard models of human bodies and behaviors, just as we’ve always done with fruit flies and barnacles,” Andrew Benedict-Nelson wrote after the event. “But human beings aren’t barnacles — the people who are being left out of standard models matter. We need new ideas about how we can expand the vision of the sciences to include all the people they normally exclude.”
The event was part of our work developing the new graduate nursing program at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and was guided by our research into the social determinants of health and professional education.
There are a handful of essential questions that every organization – certainly, every organization taking on social challenges – must answer regularly and honestly: Are we solving the right problem? Have we outlived our usefulness? Is it possible we’re pursuing the wrong core strategy?
But that’s much, much easier said than done. For one, the key actors in any successful organization have bought in to its strategy, necessarily giving up the objectivity required for rigorous self-examination. For two, tackling questions is dangerously disruptive, introducing discomfort and insecurity among staff, volunteers and boards of directors.
This is why GreenHouse principals launched Insight Labs as the first-ever philanthropic think tank. Between 2010 and 2014, we we enlisted more than 750 big thinkers from business, government, philanthropy, academia and the arts to tackle the foundational challenges facing 45 public, private and social-sector institutions.
The Labs became best known for our novel approach: invite a dozen or so subject matter experts to tackle a challenge in which they did not have expertise; keep the invite list secret from even the participants until the project was launched; and do most of the work in a three-hour flurry. It was most aptly described as “the love child of a think tank and flash mob for good.”
Our first effort was on behalf of what is now Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago, whose nearly billion-dollar capital campaign had stalled in the wake of the 2008 recession. Together, we deconstructed the ground-breaking engagement strategy of Barack Obama’s first run for president, and mapped it to the potential, expanded role of children’s hospitals in society.
Over the next 60 months, we convened brain-trusts at the request of groups as diverse as NASA, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the U.S. State Department, the TED Conferences, Boeing and Starbucks. Our approach was explored in books and magazines, including Forbes and Fast Company.