A Pioneering Behavioral Science Think Tank at the Crossroads

CASBS grounds
The CASBS grounds as they appeared in 1954, and much as they appear today. The facility was designed by William Wurste, the dean of the UC Berkeley School of Architecture and later of its College of Environmental Design.

In the run-up to its 60th year, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences is at a crossroads. The Stanford University-based center known as CASBS had been founded in 1954 and was, according to its newest director, Margaret Levi, “established to be a location and site for very smart scholars in the social sciences to spend their academic year and hopefully be in synergistic relationship with each other, and develop great ideas and write great books.”

The annual CASBS summit, this year themed "The City," takes place on November 8 on the Stanford University campus. Click here for details.
The annual CASBS summit, this year themed “The City,” takes place on November 8 on the Stanford University campus. Click here for details.
“To some extent that is what happened,” she added, “but now it is 60 years later and a number of things have changed rather significantly.” She offered some examples: In the center’s first four years there were only two female fellows, for example. It was a time when a man when a man could say to his wife and children, “We’re packing up and moving to California for a year,” and that was that. And it was a time when a home in Palo Alto, in the heart of Silicon Valley, at least approached being affordable. CASBS’s home was, and remains, a beautiful location, atop a hill overlooking San Francisco Bay, remote and yet still on the grounds of Stanford.

Levi, a University of Washington political scientist for 40 years, started her new role as director of CASBS earlier this year. She replaced interim director Iris Litt, who reprised her role as the center’s first female director to step in after psychologist Stephen Kosslyn left to be the founding dean of the Minerva Project. Twice before Levi –a former fellow and a one-time chair of the center’s board–had been approached about heading CASBS, and twice before had turned it down. She was on the cusp on rejecting it a third time if accepting meant maintaining the status quo. Instead, she received a mandate for evolution, a promise that, alongside the center’s board and the larger scholarly community, they all would “rebuild and reinvent CASBS.”

Not that what CASBS has been is anything less than stellar. As the center’s website notes, CASBS “has hosted generations of scholars and scientists who come for a year as Fellows. Former Fellows include 22 Nobel Laureates, 14 Pulitzer Prize winners, 44 winners of MacArthur ‘Genius Awards,’ and hundreds of members of the National Academies.”

Margaret Levi

Margaret Levi

Margaret Levi is well-known to CASBS. As a fellow in the class of 1994, she worked on Consent, Dissent, and Patriotism and the multi-authored Analytic Narratives while there. She has served on the center’s Board of Directors, first as a member beginning in 2002 and eventually as the chair of the board in 2007-2009, the period during which CASBS became one of Stanford’s interdisciplinary independent laboratories, centers, and institutes in 2008.

A former president of the American Political Science Association, Levi is Professor of Political Science, Stanford, and Jere L. Bacharach Professor Emerita of International Studies in the Department of Political Science at the University of Washington. She was director of the Comparative Historical Analysis of Organizations and States Center and formerly the Harry Bridges Chair and director of the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies. She has been a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University and held the chair in politics at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney from 2009-13 and is currently an affiliate professor there.

She earned her BA from Bryn Mawr College in 1968 and her PhD from Harvard University in 1974. She is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a Guggenheim Fellow. Her most recent book, In the Interest of Others (2013), co-authored with John Ahlquist, explores how organizations provoke member willingness to act beyond material interest.

In addition to her academic pursuits, she and her husband Robert Kaplan are serious collectors of Australian Aboriginal art, an interest developed well before she took the post at the University of Sydney. She and husband Bob Kalan offered about 150 pieces of their Australian aboriginal art to the Seattle Art Museum for a major exhibition in 2012 and just promised eight pieces to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to begin their collection

And yet, said Levi, “as soon as it started it became this monastic, or hermetic, kind of place. It was really the old-fashioned scholar model: give people space and maybe they would do great things as individuals, but with some stimulating conversations. Over time, the protection of the individual scholar became sort of the driving force in the way in which the place was organized.” Now she’s tasked with cutting across discipline boundaries, freeing the scholars from their hermitages, and addressing complex societal problems that require understanding and adapting behavior, with the goal of improving people’s lives today and in the future.

Her goal, then, is to continue to the destination CASBS’s founders envisioned but via a different path.


After Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study (established in 1930 with a class of permanent fellows that included the likes of Albert Einstein), CASBS was the second institute for advanced study in the world. CASBS however, would focus on the social sciences, with the namers adopting the new and trendy term ‘behavioral science.’ “[CASBS] was established to be a location and site for very smart scholars in the social sciences to spend their academic year and hopefully be in synergistic relationship with each other,” Levi explained, “to develop great ideas and write great books.” CASBS has been described, not quite accurately, as the very first ‘think tank,’ and while that might not be true to the letter, it accurately reflects the pioneering spirit that accompanied the center’s debut.

The cost was borne by the Ford Foundation, and the center was the acme of one of the five initiatives the then new foundation pursued for “advancing human welfare.” Until as recently as six years ago the lion’s share of the center’s endowment still traced back to that Ford Foundation grant, and as a result, CASBS never had a very significant endowment.In part, the center’s academic style, its scholars’ splendid isolation, impeded raising money, Levi said.

“It is very hard to talk most foundations or donors these days into funding a program which is based on individual scholars, mostly privileged academics, taking a year away from their teaching in order to do great work. Most people say, ‘Isn’t that what they’re supposed to do anyway?’ It is very hard to prove that John Rawls, who wrote his important book [A Theory of Justice], or Albert Hirschman, who wrote an important book [Exit, Voice, and Loyalty] there, that these books wouldn’t have happened without CASBS.”

This relative impecunity is one of the drivers of the changes Levi is ushering in, changes tempered with a tinge, perhaps, of nostalgia for ways past. “I was a fellow at CASBS 20 years ago and actually part of a group that produced a book [Analytic Narratives] as well as each one of us producing an individual project. I know for a fact that [collective] book would not have happened without CASBS. So I’m a fan of CASBS.” But then some years later she was put on the center’s board, a tenure that included a merger with Stanford, and she was confronted by the costs of inertia. Bi changes started around then –developing new lines of revenue, merging with Stanford, accepting applications for fellowships.

Money isn’t the only driver. “Social science has also changed,” she said. “In the 1950s and the 1960s, though there was a lot of talk about interdisciplinarity, what that really seemed to mean was you placed lots of disciplines in the same place at the same time and maybe something happened (and maybe it didn’t). “ Now, interdisciplinarity means, well, interdisciplinarity, and not just among the social and behavioral sciences but with the natural sciences, health, technology, the humanities, and arts in the mix. The merger also opens up greater collaboration with the various other entities at Stanford, not only its world-class social science departments but other disciplines and centers, too.

“The vision of CASBS will still be generating the most cutting-edge work. So it’s back to the original vision of providing a location where cutting-edge social science research goes on in a way that reaches out to virtually every discipline and method that’s appropriate to the problem, but it’s implementing it in a way that’s very different.

“What I’m hoping to do is to change the balance between those individually based scholars to more group studies, where we really are finding teams of people who are interested in working together to solve some question that they see as really critical.” Some of the efforts conceived of or even launched will fail—Levi has embraced the idea of ‘failing harder’—“and some hopefully will succeed in a big way.”

These aren’t policy questions, she stressed, but something one step deeper. As examples, she outlined three working groups on the drawing board earlier this summer:

  • Intimacy as we age. “It turns out there is a huge divorce rate when people are in their 50s,” Levi noted. “They’ve often had their grandchildren, they’re looking at 30 or more years of life, so they often divorce. While there’s a lot of research on the aging population … but not a lot about how they form and reform relationships.” This group is run by Pepper Schwartz, a sociologist at the University of Washington and the AARP’s “sex and relationship expert.”
  • Work and workers in the future. Levi has spent much of her career looking at workers and labor issues, and this is a group in which she expects to have an active role. Team leadership includes Woody Powell, a sociologist at Stanford; Richard Locke, the dean of the Watson School at Brown University; and John Markoff, a technology writer at the New York Times.
  • The webs of influence created by emigres. The idea for this arose out of Levi’s recreational reading, specifically Annie Cohen-Solal’s biographies of the influential art dealer Leo Castelli, Leo and His Circle, and Jeremy Adelman’s bio of Albert Hirshman, Worldly Philosopher. Both subjects were Jewish emigres feeling World War II Europe, and both authors were acquaintances of Levi’s, suggesting a topic and opportunity hard to resist. Both authors are on the team, and Levi said “they have pulled together a remarkable group of people to talk about the webs of influence and the webs of interaction that are created by emigres” throughout time and geography.

One open question in the change-over is the length of fellowships, for years set at one year. That model seems to have faltered, a victim in part of increasingly complex lives and skyrocketing housing costs. “Collaboration will be longer term,” Levi said, “but the residencies will be shorter,” ranging from a couple weeks to nine months in most cases.

This rebuilding has generally been welcomed, said Levi. “There’s some resistance, but it’s mostly from former fellows. It’s not from potential funders, or the board, or Stanford.” The real challenges, she continued, aren’t opposition but things money could solve, such as creating a more state-of-the-art facility for things like video conferencing or fostering group innovation, and most particularly, providing housing for fellows. “Not only do we pay a lower stipend but we don’t have residences. Trying to find housing for people in Palo Alto – well, you can imagine it’s a nightmare. We lose people because of that. That’s one of the reasons that I want to go to a more flexible sort of residency, so people don’t have to worry about getting a house for a year, or checking out school districts, or the other things they appropriately worry about.”

Perhaps that could be a future fellowship project …

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