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$10 million Pritzker gift helps U. of C. expand evidence-based labs projects

The University of Chicago is using a $10 million gift from the Pritzker family foundation to create a network of five laboratories to design and test solutions to the inner city’s toughest issues: Crime, health, education, poverty and wise use of energy and the environment.

The Urban Labs will include two labs that already exist — the university’s Crime Lab and the Urban Education Lab — plus three new ones, the university will announce on Monday at a policy round-table discussion at the Cultural Center.

The initiative also will reveal on Monday that $3 million in “innovation challenges” — money from the Pritzker gift that will fund the work of outside groups such as government agencies and community and not-for-profit groups — to come up with ideas that the labs can test.

The Urban Labs initiative has no formal, explicit connection with the university’s effort to attract the Obama Presidential Library, but “if the labs can help make Chicago a persuasive place for the library, we’d love that,” said Timothy Knowles, who will transition from director and founder of the Urban Education Institute to its chairman and become director of the Urban Labs.

The university’s Crime Lab success story — studying Youth Guidance’s program called “Becoming a Man,” which leveraged cognitive behavioral therapy to reduce by 44 percent the violent crimes committed by the at-risk young men who participated — got a shoutout from President Barack Obama when Obama launched the “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative a year ago to help young people in the inner city stay out of trouble and realize their potential.

The U. of C. is searching for a 14,000-square-foot space downtown to house all five labs, with the goal of opening on July 1, Knowles said.

The university has started hiring executive directors, project managers and other employees for the new labs. The new lab leaders include Marianne Bertrand, an economics professor at the Booth School of Business, to run the Poverty Lab; David Meltzer, a health economics expert and professor in the Department of Medicine, to lead the Health Lab; and Michael Greenstone, an economics professor and director of the university’s Energy Policy Institute, will head the Energy and the Environment Lab.

The Crime and Education labs currently employ about 40 people altogether and operate on a combined $7 million yearly budget.

Knowles’ goal is to increase employment to 30 to 40 people in each of the five labs and to see each operate on a $6 million to $7 million yearly budget.

The ultimate goal is to raise $100 million in the next four years, Knowles said.

“Over time, we will have a global portfolio,” he said, noting that the crime and education labs’ solutions — stemming juvenile crime and tutoring ninth-graders who have fallen behind in math skills, respectively — have already spread to Houston, New York City and Newark, New Jersey, among other cities.

The Poverty and Crime labs have already started work on finding out “what matters most” in employing young people. The effort is aimed at successfully tripling the size of a summer jobs program, thanks to a $10 million donation announced Feb. 6 by former NBA basketball star Earvin “Magic” Johnson and his business partners.

“The university is putting its stake in the ground to build ‘gold-standard’ evidence, in addition to academic achievement measures, to work with mayors, civic leaders and other decision makers to execute the most promising solutions” to inner-city challenges, Knowles said, noting that the number of people who live in urban areas is projected to skyrocket to 6.4 billion worldwide by 2050 from today’s 3.4 billion.