Spotlight Exclusives

Leveraging Science and Technology to Confront Social Challenges: A Conversation with Tom Kalil

Tom Kalil, Chief Innovation Officer at Schmidt Futures Tom Kalil, Chief Innovation Officer at Schmidt Futures, posted on

Tom Kalil is Chief Innovation Officer at Schmidt Futures, where he leads initiatives to harness technology for societal challenges, improve science policy, and identify and pursue 21st century moonshots. Prior to his role at Schmidt Futures, Kalil served in the White Houses for two presidents (Obama and Clinton), helping to design and launch national science and technology initiatives in areas such as nanotechnology, the BRAIN initiative, data science, STEM education, and the federal use of incentive prizes. He spoke with Spotlight about the role of science and technology in addressing societal challenges such as promoting opportunity and diminishing income inequality. This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

How did you get interested in the role that science, technology and innovation can play in addressing societal challenges – like poverty?

I had an opportunity to work for two Presidents (President Clinton and President Obama) for sixteen years. One of my jobs was to design and launch national science and technology initiatives that involved multiple agencies, like President Clinton’s nanotechnology initiative or President Obama’s BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative.

One of the things that I noticed over time is that some agencies, like DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), had the ability to set really ambitious goals and mobilize top researchers and entrepreneurs to meet them, while other agencies, like the Department of Labor, did not. The entire Department of Defense has a research budget of $66 billion, whereas the Department of Labor has essentially no research budget.

This huge difference in capacity shapes what agencies can do in important ways.  For example, the Department of Defense was able to launch a program to reduce the time required for new Navy recruits to gain a technical skill from years to months, harnessing advances in AI. This is not something that the Department of Labor would have the ability to conceive of, let alone fund.

In short, the federal government is serious about investing in S&T to achieve some goals (national security, space, biomedical research, basic science) but not others, such as reducing the inter-generational transmission of poverty.

So it occurred to me – what if the agencies that are responsible for promoting economic and social mobility (e.g. Labor, Education, HUD, the human services components of HHS) had a research arm like DARPA? What goals would it set? What research projects might it support to achieve those goals? 

Why do you think we should be investing more in science and technology to address societal challenges?

I think that if you are trying to make progress on a particular societal problem, and are generating a list of approaches to explore, science and technology should be on the list.  And by S&T – I mean to include the social and behavioral sciences, not just the natural sciences and engineering.

That’s because we know more (e.g. the slow but steady increase in our understanding about how people learn or how we make decisions and form habits) and can do more based on the increased power and reach of technology, particularly digital technologies.

Having said that, I certainly don’t think it is the case that science and technology is going to solve all of our problems. I also think that we need to be more cognizant of the risks of technology, not just the benefits, and to develop technology-enhanced solutions in collaboration with the communities we are trying to empower as opposed to for them.

Can you give some examples?

Most workforce development programs for low-income workers have pretty modest impacts on wages. One can imagine a number of ways in which science and technology could reduce the time required for a low-income worker to gain a skill that is a ticket to the middle-class. A goal of a research program in this area might be, “Demonstrate that a training program that lasts no more than six months can increase the incomes of low-wage non-college educated worker by $10,000 or more.”

For example:

  • AI-based digital tutors could model the interaction between an expert and a novice, reducing the time required for a worker to gain a new skill.
  • Simulations could make it easier for workers to engage in learning by doing, in the same way that pilots use flight simulators.
  • Ideas from the field of industrial psychology such as cognitive task analysis could increase the effectiveness of training programs by ensuring that the instructional design is based on what top performers in a given job know and are able to do.
  • A field called “evidence-centered design” could help employers make hiring decisions on the basis of skills and competencies, as opposed to whether a worker has a four-year degree. We could create digital learning environments where completion of a set of tasks is predictive of on-the-job performance.

Is science and technology a substitute for public policy solutions, like expanding the EITC or strengthening worker voice? Absolutely not. Is this something we should investing in and experimenting with?  Yes.

Are there opportunities to leverage science and technology for children in poverty?

Yes. One potential area of intervention is the so-called “word gap.” Research at Harvard and MIT concluded that young children from low-income households are less likely to engage “serve and return” interaction with a parent or caregiver, and that this has a large impact on language skills (vocabulary, grammar, verbal reasoning) and brain development (activity in Broca’s area, the part of the brain involved in speech production and language processing). Low-income children that were exposed to more of these conversational turns had stronger language skills and brain development. Schmidt Futures is supporting research at the University of Chicago that will improve our ability to evaluate different interventions to close the “word gap.”

Researchers are exploring ways to influence the behavior of parents and caregivers, using science and technology. For example, one team of researchers used a tablet and insights from behavioral science to more than double the amount of time that low-income parents spend reading to their children, using relatively simple interventions such as getting the parents to set a goal, giving them feedback about how they are doing relative to that goal, and sending them text reminders.

What roles could foundations and philanthropists play in harnessing science and technology to tackle societal challenges?

A good first step would be to develop research, development and demonstration agendas for a given societal challenge – e.g. – how might we:

  • Reduce the time for a non-college educated worker to gain a skill that is a ticket to the middle class;
  • Encourage low-income parents and caregivers to read to their children for 30 minutes/day;
  • Develop a game for adult literacy or passing the U.S. citizenship test that is engaging as Angry Birds;
  • Lower the physical cost of housing construction by 50 percent;
  • Double the percentage of low-income students that are proficient in 8th grade math; and
  • Use data science and low-cost sensors to fight childhood lead poisoning or other environmental health challenges.

After we have a deeper and richer sense for what might be possible, philanthropists and foundations could support:

  • The development of “bilinguals” – people with expertise in both technology and a particular societal problem, in the same way that NIH recognized it needed to invest in interdisciplinary graduate programs in computational biology – computer science + biology.
  • University-based centers or institutes that invest in research, pilots, and evaluations of S&T-based interventions;
  • Incentive prizes or other “market-shaping” interventions like Advance Market Commitments;
  • Advocacy campaigns to increase the S&T capacity of agencies responsible for alleviating and reducing poverty.

Tom Kalil is Chief Innovation Officer at Schmidt Futures

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