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Behavioral Science Initiative at Darden Seeks to Solve Real-World Challenges in Diversity, Sustainability and Human Well-Being

By Dave Hendrick
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Diversity, Energy Systems, Well-Being,


A deep dive into entrepreneurship among black women in resource-constrained environments in Detroit.

The power of oral traditions in intergenerational decision-making.

Overcoming barriers between behavioral science and engineering with an eye toward sustainable construction.

These radically different areas of research have the potential to make a major impact on business and society. And all three are being led by the University of Virginia’s new Convergent Behavioral Science Initiative (CBSI), a pan-University initiative hosted by the Darden School of Business and the School of Engineering and Applied Science with plans for physical infrastructure to be located on Darden Grounds. The initiative is committed to research across a range of departments and disciplines with a focus on solving social challenges in the areas of diversity, sustainability and well-being.

Bridging Schools and Disciplines

Founded in 2018 by Darden Professor Morela Hernandez and UVA Engineering and Architecture Professor Leidy Klotz, the initiative was an early beneficiary of funding from UVA’s Strategic Investment Fund (SIF) — the pool of funding designated by the UVA Board of Visitors to support initiatives that have the potential to transform a critical area of knowledge or operation of the University.

A portion of the $2.15 million in this three-year seed funding has been applied toward new infrastructure at Darden — a research hub that will serve researchers affiliated with Darden and the UVA schools of Engineering, Architecture, Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, and Nursing, among others. The funds are also helping the CBSI offer some level of support to more than 100 researchers, including 45 faculty members across eight schools at UVA.

The initiative also supports post-doctoral scholars and the Behavioral Science for Sustainable Systems Ph.D. program. With 10 Ph.D. students, Klotz and Hernandez say the program is the largest group of its kind focused on the intersection of engineering and behavioral science. The CBSI provides resources, infrastructure and mentorship to the group.

Courtney McCluney, a postdoctoral research fellow at Darden, has a longstanding interest in issues of marginalization. Some of McCluney’s recent work supported by the CBSI involves the study of entrepreneurship in Detroit, seeking to uncover how women with limited resources navigate an entrepreneurial ecosystem that bears little resemblance to Silicon Valley, Austin or Charlottesville.

“The goal of the research is to better understand how marginalized entrepreneurs are accessing resources; how, in an entrepreneurial ecosystem that is constrained in so many ways, entrepreneurs are getting the resources they need; and what the whole ecosystem looks like,” said McCluney. “If we can find out what is working there, I think it can also shed insight on places that are resource abundant but have very few entrepreneurs coming from marginalized groups.”

Such findings could provide valuable information for entrepreneurs from marginalized groups to thrive, McCluney said.

The different Schools and diverse interests represented among CBSI-sponsored researchers and students have allowed the group to engage in the exact sort of cross-discipline collaboration and bridge building UVA President Jim Ryan is making a priority as the University prepares to launch its $5 billion campaign. The group has become tight-knit, meeting as a unit nearly every Friday in Darden’s Camp Library for workshops.

Partnerships With Purpose

Beyond UVA, the initiative has struck up partnerships with a range of organizations in its short lifespan, including the World Bank and the National Science Foundation, with the latter recently awarding the CBSI a $100,000 planning grant. In late 2018, the CBSI co-hosted a behavioral summit with Ideas42, the behavioral science think tank that originated at Harvard University.

CBSI is also building UVA’s international reputation as the leader in this vital area. The initative was selected as the academic partner for an expert panel on Behavioral Science for Design, held in conjunction with the newest imprint of the widely read Nature series of publications.

“The Nature Sustainability panel felt like a wedding,” said Klotz. “We brought together groups with something dear in common, but who hadn’t yet spent much time together. And I think we’ll look back on the gathering as a milestone in the relationship between engineering and behavioral science, and the School of Engineering and Applied Science and Darden.”

While a powerful, inclusive and potentially transformative initiative has successfully been created in a short period of time, Hernandez says there is still more to be done. Additional support will be needed to ensure the initiative is sustainable beyond the next two years of SIF funding.

“By leveraging the strong foundation in place, UVA and Darden have an opportunity to make their mark as leaders in convergent research to solve society’s most significant challenges,” said Hernandez.

This article originally appeared in The Darden Report on April 24, 2019.