Watson faculty and collaborators advance research projects through Birkelund Funds

The Watson Institute awarded Birkelund funds to five faculty research projects during the 2023 - 2024 academic year. Projects ranged from studying civilian-military coordination during the pandemic to creating a study group between Brown students and faculty, and quilombola communities in Brazil.

The Birkelund Fund for Watson Institute Faculty Research on Development, Governance and Security contributes to the Watson Institute's objective of supporting faculty research, especially innovative, early-stage research. This year, Watson awarded Birkelund Funds to five research proposals. Below are some highlights of the findings from this year's Birkelund Fund awardees:

The role of civilian-military coordination during national responses to pandemics

Director of the Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Studies (CHRHS) Dr. Adam C. Levine, Director of the Military Fellows Program David Polatty, and CHRHS Research Associate Alexandria Nylen lead "The role of civilian-military coordination during national responses to pandemics" project.

Nylen noted that the group used the Birkelund funds to extend an ongoing investigation of civilian-military coordination during the COVID-19 pandemic. The initial research resulted in a report that analyzes how the United States military was heavily relied upon to fill gaps in the civilian healthcare infrastructure. Many interviewees suggested that using the National Guard as a "Swiss Army knife" resulted in high degrees of burnout among responders.

"We wanted to expand the project to include more data with a broader geographic focus," said Nylen, "and also to incorporate data on general public opinion." The group used funds to support a survey on U.S. attitudes toward the use of military and law enforcement in response to the pandemic. 

Nylen said the team is still interpreting the results of the 1,500-person survey they designed, which the market research group YouGov conducted. "We're looking at how people's opinions of using military assets might differ from their opinion on using law enforcement assets during pandemics," she said, "and we're exploring some really granular things like how politically conservative people view the use of military assets in pandemic responses."

Nylen noted that the survey results may appear surprising at first glance but indicate a sea-change in public attitudes toward government entities brought about by former President Trump and the pandemic. "We found people who voted for Biden in both elections are more likely to be supportive of military and law enforcement use in the pandemic response," she said, "which, on its face, might seem counterintuitive to people who think that Democrats tend to be less supportive of the military or the police than Republicans." 

While support for the military and police among Republicans and self-identified conservatives has historically been very high, the survey suggests they were not trusting of their participation in response to the pandemic. "We're finding some pretty strong feelings about the pandemic being a hoax," said Nyle. "We are currently qualitatively coding those answers so we can see how specific people answered the survey questions." 

Nylen said the group is drafting a manuscript they plan to submit to an academic journal. They also plan to issue a report using information from interviews with key informants from the military and police. 

Explaining and preventing violence against environmental activists in the Amazon 

Arkadij Eisler Goldman Sachs Associate Professor of Political Science and International and Public Affairs Robert Blair and Postdoctoral Research Associate in Political Science Mariana Carvalho lead the project, "Explaining and preventing violence against environmental activists in the Amazon."

Blair said his team is trying to understand the factors that drive violence against environmental activists in the Amazon. "It's a major problem that has gotten much worse in recent years," he said, "We know that there are incidents of violence, but it's hard to know the exact scope of the problem because data on it is incomplete."

"We want to understand both the economic and political drivers of the violence," said Blair, "and then launch an intervention with a randomized control trial to evaluate the effectiveness of the intervention so that we can protect some of these communities or connect them with state agencies that can provide protection."

Blair explained that the project will have three phases. The first, already completed, phase involved collecting secondary data on violence from Brazil-based NGOs, followed by preliminary field trips to Brazil to interview affected communities about the nature of the violence they face and what they are doing to protect themselves. The second phase is an extensive survey that Blair said they hope to launch by the middle of this year. "Logistically, it's an extremely complicated undertaking," he said, "because these are very remote communities that we need to visit." The third and final phase will be the intervention with randomized control, which Blair estimates will happen in a year or two.

With the Birkelund funding the team received, they hired a student research assistant to do data analysis. "We got reports from NGOs that track violence in the Amazon," said Blair, "but they were mostly either hard copy or digital reports that provide narrative descriptions of events." With the help of the student research assistant, Blair said, "We've been digitizing everything and converting it into data and then merging any other data that we could find on political and economic dynamics in this region."

The group used additional funds to finance trips to Brazil for a postdoctoral research associate and a graduate student working on the project with Blair. "They met with communities, organizations and government officials involved in protection efforts," he said. They plan to use the remaining funds to support the launch of the survey.

Black geographies/public policies: Thinking with quilombola communities

Senior Fellow in International and Public Affairs Geri Augusto and John Carter Brown Library Short-Term Fellow Wellington Castellucci Jr. spearhead the distinctive Birkelund-funded project, "Black geographies/public policies: Thinking with quilombola communities."

Augusto said the project drew on work she has been doing in the Global South, specifically in Southern Africa, over many years and new ideas that emerged over a decade as she engaged with colleagues and communities in Brazil. "I wanted to do something experimental based on policy practice and what I do in and outside the classroom when I am in other countries," she said.

"The students who come to Brown," Augusto noted, "no matter their national origin, ethnicity, or race, are almost always in a position of privilege relative to the young people of the same age that I meet in the Global South." Augusto said she wanted to create a study group "that would focus on and collaborate equitably with Brazilian counterparts," including professors and students who were roughly the same age as their counterparts at Brown. "We also wanted to make the knowledge and experience of the youth and elders in quilombos the center of the cross-border dialogue that we would create through reading and conversation," she said.

Quilombola communities were created by African and African-descendant enslaved people who liberated themselves and established new communities in various locales. According to Augusto, quilombolas created and sustained alternative modes of life that continue to this day, but "Quilombola ideas and experiences have yet to play as powerful a role in reconceptualizing development studies as they might."

Through their interactions, Brown students discovered that "there are many contemporary alternative models of a good life," said Augusto. "On the other hand, many of our students are deeply interested in environmental and other social justice struggles. They find, as do the people living in quilombos, that those struggles are also about a broad range of public policies — matters of gender, racial and ethnic inequalities, policies about land and waterways — and hence about justice and democracy more broadly," she said. 

"Discussions for the study group took place in two dimensions," she explained. First, the four professors created a comprehensive, interdisciplinary, bilingual reading list. For the works in English that the Brown side contributed, Augusto said that she was fortunate to have the assistance of a UTRA student, Calvin Eng. The students and professors from the U.S. and Brazil also met several times conjointly via Zoom.

The study group's Zoom conversations have ended for now, but still in the works are a planned two-day virtual international symposium as well as a collaborative digital exhibition on quilombola arts. Students on both sides have expressed the desire to get to know each other in person. Augusto muses that their conversations, the joint research bibliography and the practice acquired in the equitable creation of knowledge may have opened up the possibility, in the future, of a cross-border, for-credit course on black geographies, public policies and quilombola thought. "It would take a lot of work," she said, "but it would definitely be worth it."

Other projects

Other Birkelund-funded projects for the 2023-2024 academic year include "For love or money? Dating income among undergraduates," led by IJC Assistant Professor of Economics and International and Public Affairs Bryce Millett Steinberg, and "The prison bust? Responsible prison closures & harm reduction in rural communities" led by Watson Family University Associate Professor of Sociology and International and Public Affairs John Eason.