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The Innovation Imperative

February 3, 2016

How scientific social work helps people flourish

By Edwina Satsuki Uehara
Professor and inaugural holder of the Ballmer endowed deanship in Social Work
UW School of Social Work

UW Social Work Dean Edwina Satsuki Uehara

Edwina Satsuki Uehara

Here’s a question for everyone who wants to change the world: Which of these innovations will have more impact on society — a first-of-its-kind experimental vaccine to prevent HIV/AIDS that’s been developed by a venture-capital-backed biotechnology company, or a big-data research study from a social work scholar that identifies the role that alcohol consumption plays in the contraction of HIV/AIDS?

My answer is both.

Each of these rigorous, cutting-edge and science-based initiatives has the potential to transform our society in a real and enduring way; each seeks to improve and save lives; and each attempts to enhance wellbeing within an often marginalized community.

So, if this is the case, why are the experimental vaccine and the big data research study, which share the same humanistic objectives and social welfare goals, seen in a vastly different light?

Indeed, as members of what’s been called the 21st Century Innovation Economy, we are increasingly conditioned to see high-growth technology start-ups solve critical and seemingly intractable problems effectively and efficiently. And, in many instances, we celebrate these groundbreaking efforts — even as they provide entrepreneurs and investors with sumptuous financial rewards.

I’m absolutely, positively in favor of this approach to innovation.

But I think there are also other valuable and complementary models that can help produce lasting — and much needed — social change so that people and communities can flourish and thrive.

One of these innovation models — scientific social work — has a particularly good track record when it comes to advancing leading-edge solutions for significant social problems such as poverty, child safety and security, healthy aging, emotional wellbeing, economic empowerment, gender equity and access to health care and financial services. These problems deeply affect all of us, but especially those in under-served and under-represented communities worldwide.

Based on collaboration involving trained social work scholars and the most accomplished outside talent from fields as diverse as technology, medicine and business, scientific social work creates a unique human capital hybrid to tackle persistent, powerful and pressing social problems. In an increasingly connected world with complex and interdependent challenges, solutions that work require a collective response that works in close collaboration with those most affected by the problem.

Data-driven scientific social work — an integral part of the University of Washington’s innovation imperative — also has a sharply etched bottom line, just as venture-capital-driven innovation does. But the return on investment with scientific social work isn’t dollars and cents — it’s collective impact. That means turning scholarly inquiry and research insights into scalable and sustainable change that can be seen, felt and experienced by the people in greatest need.

And, given the events of the first 15 years of this century, it’s abundantly clear that there are plenty of people in need of the innovative change that scientific social work can accelerate.

  • After 9/11, devastating weather events and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, many members of our society are struggling with trauma and loss. Assisting victims of trauma is not new, but better understanding how trauma affects individuals, families and communities is essential in order to deliver state-of-the-art mental health services on a large scale to people who are wrestling with painful personal experiences.
  • The psychological after-shocks of the 2008 financial meltdown and recession also linger for many people in our country — and unresolved depression, anxiety, stress and hopelessness persist, especially among those who lost their homes, paychecks and optimism about the future. Fully understanding these feelings of economic instability is crucial if we’re going to develop innovative behavioral therapies, not to mention more responsive public policies, to help this displaced cohort.
  • For their part, children continue to suffer in our society. But the encouraging news is that there are a number of innovative research studies underway from science-based social work scholars that could help us formulate cutting-edge solutions for our troubled and at-risk youth. These studies range from suicide prevention work that reduces the risk of school violence to providing effective emotional support for children of incarcerated parents so that they can thrive as adults.

Looking forward, there is so much more we need to know — and do — in scientific social work to help people flourish everywhere. Social work expertise is critical to solving many of our most pressing problems. When we effectively lift up the lives of the most disadvantaged, everyone in society benefits. We become stronger in our communities and in our country.

Whether it’s broadening the definition of family, increasing our knowledge about genetics, neurobiology and human development, wrestling with the dynamics of globalization, comprehending the real impact of technology, or deepening our understanding of social intolerance and injustice, the most vulnerable members of our communities need our best breakthrough thinking to fulfill their promise and potential as individuals in the 21st century.


The University of Washington believes that nurturing boundless innovation and creativity empowers students, faculty, staff, alumni and partners to create a world of good. Through the Innovation Imperative, the UW is creating inclusive solutions to society’s grand challenges. This article is one in a series written for CoMotion, the UW’s innovation hub. To learn more from UW innovators, visit uw.edu/innovation.

This article also appeared Feb. 3, 2016 on Xconomy.