Birkelund Funds drive innovative research initiatives, support student engagement

The Birkelund Fund for Watson Institute Faculty Research on Development, Governance, and Security contributes to Watson’s objective of providing “more support for faculty research, especially early-stage research,” said Watson Institute Director Ed Steinfeld. This year, in its initial cycle, the Birkelund Fund grants provided valuable seed funds, up to $20,000, to each of the six research proposals. These grants said Steinfeld, “are not huge in scale, but they position our faculty to get their work going to the point where it’s eligible for larger outside grants.”

Faculty seeking a Birkelund Fund grant are invited to include collaborators from across Brown or beyond, provided at least one principal investigator is a Watson faculty member. “We don’t want to be siloed; rather, we want to stimulate collaborative research beyond Watson, and we’re eager to see graduate students involved with these research projects,” Steinfeld said. 

Evaluating the risk of nuclear brinkmanship 

A Birkelund Fund grant will enable Dean’s Assistant Professor of Nuclear Security and Policy Reid Pauly to bring together scholarship on nuclear brinkmanship and psychology to evaluate the risks of nuclear war in crisis. His project, “Threats That Leave Something to Chance,” will investigate how nuclear powers compete under the shadow of a nuclear war that threatens their mutual annihilation.

“Vladimir Putin may be engaged in nuclear brinkmanship today,” said Pauly, among the younger generation of nuclear scholars interested in updating the Cold War nuclear brinkmanship strategy scholarship.

“The Birkelund Fund offers faculty a great way to hire research assistants and support our graduate students,” said Pauly. He has hired research assistants, Beenish Pervaiz and Omar Afzaal, Ph.D. candidates in Political Science, and John Michael Slezak, an undergraduate research assistant with concentrations in physics and applied math, to conduct a literature review and build a data set of all cases of brinkmanship, including in Ukraine.

With a commitment to a larger tranche of research funds in 2023, Pauly said, “When the external grant money becomes accessible, I can hit the ground running.”   

While Putin’s invasion of Ukraine did not motivate Pauly’s research, he said, “The nuclear signaling around the invasion is further evidence of how these research projects are necessary. Even before the war in Ukraine, nuclear weapons – and great power politics – were back. Current events are accelerating the trend and demonstrate the need for rethinking these issues.”

We don’t want to be siloed; rather, we want to stimulate collaborative research beyond Watson, and we’re eager to see graduate students involved with these research projects.

Edward Steinfeld Director of the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

Parents’ rights in the education space

“Realizing Rights,” a collaboration between Assistant Professor of Education, Political Science, and Public Affairs Jonathan Collins and Watson’s Master of Public Affairs Program Director and Associate Professor of Political Science Susan Moffitt and will develop original current data around parents’ rights within their children’s education.

The team wants to investigate these key questions, explained Collins: How do parents see their rights and how do some parents believe they are entitled to certain rights? How are local institutions such as school boards managing the push from parents to assert their own views on educational policies? Why and how are these [perceived parental rights] being weaponized?

While school boards provide unique access to local policy-making, Collins said, “As many [educational policy] decisions are made at the state and federal levels, we want to determine as well how parents’ rights are deployed or protected by federal bureaucrats, who play a very different role than do school boards. 

Moffitt said, “This unencumbered grant allows us to try something new and innovative; it’s very useful seed money for us to try out a new collaboration that will put us in a position to apply for larger grants from external funders.” 

The Birkelund Fund, explained Moffitt, “propelled us to put our heads together; Jonathan and I have been talking about collaborating for years and the grant gave us an opportunity to consider the intersections in our collective research agendas.” These funds will allow Collins and Moffitt to hire undergraduates to code and clean data and a focus group facilitator and purchase modest gift cards for 100 focus group participants. 

Teaching an undergraduate political science course, Education, Inequality, and American Democracy, for a decade has generated many research questions for Moffitt.

“The question of how families come to understand their rights in the special education space has been percolating for as long as I’ve been teaching on special education issues. And, the current political context leads us to think about the ways schools engage with families in heterogeneous and complex ways,” she said. “Jonathan and I approach the research as social scientists and figuring out the puzzle about parents’ rights; we’re not going into this with preconceived conclusions.”   

Additional research initiatives

  • Assistant Professor of Political Science and International and Public Affairs Tyler Jost will host a one-day academic gathering, “New Directions in Bureaucracy and International Politics Conference.” Grant funds will support the conference, which will be designed to solicit scholarly feedback and cross-institutional research cooperation from some 15 scholars unaffiliated with Brown. The renewed interest in how and why elected and appointed leaders matter in international relations and the expanded access to digitized records drives this research on how bureaucracy shapes international relations. 
  • Director of the Africa Initiative and Professor of Anthropology Daniel Jordan Smith will investigate the scope and consequences of social changes at the intersection of gender and family, in “Development Up Close: Gender, Family, and a Generation of Change in Nigeria.” Building on more than 25 years of his ethnographic research of Nigerian couples, Smith will track changes over an entire generation. Funds will be used to hire a research assistant in Nigeria to find past survey participants, collect and assemble government data and news media materials, and help follow up with appropriate officials.
  • Harmon Family Professor of Sociology and International and Public Affairs Nitsan Chorev and Salma Mutwafy, Ph.D. candidate, Department of Sociology will use archival research, interviews, and digital ethnography to examine the “turf wars” between pharmacists and non-pharmacists in Tanzania and Kenya.  
  • Building on a successful pilot study, in partnership with the University of Zambia, IJC Assistant Professor of Economics and International and Public Affairs Bryce Steinberg and her collaborators will run a randomized control trial to test whether dispelling myths about the infertility effects of contraceptives – combined with a small, non-coercive conditional cash transfer for visiting a health clinic – can increase contraceptive use with the ultimate goal of reducing unplanned pregnancies and college dropout.

The Birkelund Fund application is expected to open again in January or February 2023, with awards announced in April.