History of the Center

The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University was established in 2006 by Center director Jack P. Shonkoff, M.D. Our founding mission was to generate, translate, and apply scientific knowledge that would close the gap between what we know and what we do to improve the lives of children facing adversity. Initially, we used existing knowledge about early childhood development to educate policymakers and build support for early investment. Over time, we increasingly turned to science as a source of new ideas for dramatically improving child outcomes. We now view existing best practices as a starting point, not a destination. Our current mission is to drive science-based innovation that achieves breakthrough outcomes for children facing adversity.

Center director Jack P. Shonkoff’s involvement with two prior initiatives laid the foundation for our distinctive mission. The first group, the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development, produced From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development — a landmark report in the early childhood field. The second group, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Early Experience and Brain Development, modeled the transformative impact of working at the intersection of neuroscience and developmental psychology.

As a Center, our greatest promise lies in our ability to channel this collective expertise toward securing a brighter future for the world through enlightened investment in its children.

In 2003, members of the two groups, above, formed the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. The Council’s purpose was to use the newly synthesized science of development to inform effective, science-based policy. In its current form, the Council blends expertise in the biological and behavioral sciences with sophisticated communications research to translate the science of early childhood for public decision making. Its members are important collaborators with the Center, and their research provides the scientific basis for many of our communications products.

We began a new, more applied phase of work after launching our Frontiers of Innovation (FOI) initiative in 2011. Through FOI, we have engaged with a diverse group of researchers, practitioners, policymakers, and philanthropists who are eager to think and work differently in the pursuit of transformative change for children facing adversity.

Today, the Center occupies a unique niche among university-based institutes and independent think tanks. As an interfaculty initiative accountable to the Provost, our projects draw on faculty from across the university and its affiliated hospitals, as well as a growing number of collaborators beyond the Harvard community. Few institutions have the capacity to call on so many distinguished leaders in such a diversity of academic and professional fields. As a Center, our greatest promise lies in our ability to channel this collective expertise toward securing a brighter future for the world through enlightened investment in its children.

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