New policy labs will 'turbo-charge' Watson research programs

Watson Policy Labs, a new initiative of the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, will enhance the link between teaching, research and public outreach by addressing specific policy issues through a combination of faculty research, student training, research-based courses and public outreach.

The Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs has secured $1 million in funding over three years to launch Watson Policy Labs. The labs will enhance the institute's mission to promote a just and peaceful world through research, teaching and public engagement through a combination of active faculty research, student training, research-based courses and engagement with the world of practice. 

Each policy lab will involve research constellations of MPAs, Ph.D. students and undergraduates organized by a faculty member to study a particular area of policy focus. Labs will have a course component that serves as a pedagogical platform for educating students on the topic involved, exposing them in a classroom setting to the active research being conducted by the lab, and motivating a subset of them to join the research effort of the lab itself as it moves forward.

The institute's director, Edward Steinfeld, said the idea of creating labs came from the recognition that research, teaching and outreach are already inextricably linked at Watson. With the labs, the institute seeks to formalize and enhance those links by creating a greater sense of cohesion and fostering teamwork around particular research topics to deepen the impact of Watson-based research.

"We don't take the use of the word 'lab' lightly," said Steinfeld, "while we are not a STEM discipline, this is intended to look like the kind of lab arrangement that you have in STEM disciplines." "The faculty member will be joined by some combination of post-doctoral researchers, Ph.D. students, MPA students and undergraduates working on a previously defined area of research," he said. 

Each lab will also have at least one course associated with it that is directly related to the research topic. Steinfeld said the classes will provide a platform to create research that feeds into the projects and also serve as a means to recruit potential student researchers. 

"The idea is to intentionally create deep linkages where you have a course expressly related to a research endeavor," said Steinfeld. "Part of the course pedagogy will involve experiential learning, getting students directly involved in research," he said.

The final component of the labs will involve "engagement with both the community in which the data is being collected and the larger policy community," said Steinfeld. In addition to peer-reviewed scholarship, labs will engage those audiences through a combination of policy memos, media outreach, participation in public forums and direct briefings.

Steinfeld said following the lab model is a way of solidifying and formalizing the kind of research and learning that already happens organically at Watson. "It will allow the research to get bigger and have greater coherence. It will also give our researchers access to the resources that allow them to scale the effort up and hopefully deepen the impact of their work," he said.


The program will provide three years of non-renewable seed funding of $100,000 per year to each lab. Funding can be used to hire a research associate or post-doctoral researcher to help run the lab and conduct research, as well as MPA student research assistants and undergraduate researchers. 

Funding can also be used to support travel, which Steinfeld envisions as a critical component of both research and learning. "All the labs require funding to get students out into the field to do data collection, whether it's interview-based work, ethnographic work, or analyzing large data sets. And for that, travel is often required," he said.

Inaugural labs

The institute has selected three research programs that will form the initial Watson Policy Labs. 

Arkadij Eisler Goldman Sachs Associate Professor of Political Science and International and Public Affairs Robert Blair will lead the Civil Conflict and Democratic Erosion Lab. The lab will focus on threats to civil order across multiple global settings and advance Blair's research on threats to democracy in the U.S. and abroad. 

Blair said he expects the creation of a policy lab to "turbo-charge" his current research agenda. He noted, "Most of my projects involve large teams engaging in a wide variety of different tasks. A lab model is perfect for this sort of work."

Watson Family University Associate Professor of Sociology and International and Public Affairs John Eason will head the Justice Policy Lab. The lab will continue Eason's work in the criminal justice arena. The lab will focus on the political economy of prison building in the U.S. and how prisons affect the communities where they are located. The research will also focus on issues of poverty, housing, healthcare and other related issues. 

Eason's plans for the lab are ambitious not only in terms of research but also in pedagogy. "Because I approach teaching and research using an equity lens," said Eason, "the Justice Policy Lab will enhance the Brown scholarly community by creating a space where junior researchers are not only able to gain technical skills but also mentoring experience." "As junior scholars explore topics of interest to them, we will guide them in establishing their own research path. Because junior scholars are also asked to peer mentor, this helps develop management skills as well," he said.

Professor of Political Science and International and Public Affairs Susan Moffitt will lead the Realizing Rights Lab. The lab will focus on issues of public school governance, parental and student rights and the effects of partisanship on education. The lab will build on work Moffitt published in her book (co-authored with Michaela O'Neill), "Reforming the Reform: Problems of Public Schooling in the American Welfare State," a study of the problems encountered by educational leaders when they pursue reform, and the cyclical nature of educational reform efforts. 

Moffitt said, "The Realizing Rights Lab will take up timely and important puzzles of how rights are achieved and experienced in practice, not just on paper. Early phases of this project will focus on disability rights, but it will also provide the undergraduate, graduate and post-doctoral lab colleagues with data, resources and opportunities to pursue their own puzzles related to Realizing Rights. The lab approach also equips this project to contribute to both academic research and applied public policy."

[The lab model] will allow the research to get bigger and have greater coherence. It will also give our researchers access to the resources that allow them to scale the effort up and hopefully deepen the impact of their work.

Edward Steinfeld Howard R. Swearer Director of the Thomas J. Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs
Edward Steinfeld

Beyond the inaugural labs

The expectation is that upon completion of an initial three-year pilot period, each lab's work will either be completed or the lab will have secured outside funding to continue its work. 

Steinfeld said he hopes this model will also turn students into accomplished researchers who can continue doing the work at a high level. "I think that through this pilot program," he said, "we can create a model that isn't overly hierarchical where everyone feels invested in the research. The hope is that people will develop a passionate interest in a particular policy topic, engage in the endeavor over an extended period and learn how to produce great research."