Birkelund funds provide seed funding for innovative research and experiential learning at Watson

This year, five Watson research proposals were awarded a total of $100,000 in Birkelund Funds. The funds support faculty research, especially in the early stages, and encourage student engagement in research.

The Birkelund Fund for Watson Institute Faculty Research on Development, Governance and Security supports two of the Watson Institute's primary objectives: innovative faculty research and experience-based learning for students. This year the Birkelund Fund awarded grants to five research proposals. These seed funds are awarded to research proposals in their early stages that can eventually be eligible for external funding.

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. 

The following are the five research proposals awarded funding this cycle:

Gender, art & body politics in the Middle East

Nadje Al-Ali

Al-Ali will analyze the various ways women artists and activists engage and challenge gender-based inequalities and gendered violence in the Middle East. She plans to address the question of “if and how women artists challenge prevailing gender norms and relations while also exploring the relevance of art and cultural production in feminist and queer activism in the region.” The project will focus on two countries associated with sectarianism, authoritarianism, and a history of war and violence: Iraq and Lebanon. 

Observing electoral violence

Dawn Brancati

The funds will support research for Brancati’s proposed book entitled “Observing Electoral Violence.” In the book, Brancati plans to explain why political actors use violence instead of fraud to steal elections and how electoral violence uniquely influences domestic and international responses to stolen elections. 

According to Brancati, “Electoral violence is a recurrent feature of elections, undermining polls in about one-third of countries in the world today, including well-established democracies, such as India and the United States, as well as weakly democratic and authoritarian states, such as Bangladesh and Zimbabwe.” 

As the title of the book suggests, Brancati argues, “the observability of violence is key to understanding both of these pressing questions.”

Weak states in the making and breaking of international cooperation

Tyler Jost

The funds will support research for Jost’s second book, tentatively titled

“Inherit the Earth: Weak States in the Making and Breaking of International Cooperation.” In the book, Jost plans to explore the idea that great power cooperation depends in large part on the political stability of the places in between them. 

“These ‘peripheral’ countries,” as Jost describes them, “despite their material disadvantages, have enormous power…Countries like the United States, China and Russia depend on the periphery’s acquiescence to position defense capabilities in remote areas, to gain access to economic markets and to legitimate their claims to leadership in the global hierarchy. The periphery’s power is the power to say no when great powers ask.”

Fetal personhood and the criminalization of pregnancy

Poulami Roychowdhury and Alexandra Nylen

Roychowdhury and Nylen plan to conduct research on one piece of the broader social and legal transformation brought about by the 2022 Supreme Court ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health that ended the constitutional right to an abortion: The relationship between fetal personhood and the criminalization of pregnancy in the post-Dobbs era. 

“When fetuses gain personhood,” they note, “they acquire a legal ‘self-interest’ that is distinct from, and potentially in conflict with, pregnant people. Additionally, they also acquire the ability to be ‘harmed’ by the actions of those who carry them.” They plan to research “How fetal personhood statutes impact when, under what circumstances, and with what level of frequency pregnant people are criminalized?”

Crossing the finish line: Intervening in a critical period for Zambian women's educational investment

Bryce Millett Steinberg

Steinberg plans to research “whether social assistance can reduce financial need among college-going women in Sub-Saharan Africa, curbing risky coping mechanisms, such as transactional sex, which may lead to unplanned pregnancies and HIV, and improving educational outcomes and ultimately the allocation of human capital.” 

Steinberg and her research team will recruit a sample of 1,000 participants who will be randomly assigned to one of two equally sized groups: control and unconditional cash transfer. The treatment group will receive around $50 per month for four months. Participants will be surveyed to see if the intervention reduced engagement in risky behaviors.