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Public Affairs and Policy Lab

Engaging undergraduate students with faculty research.

Apply to Get Paid to Conduct Research With Faculty

The Public Affairs and Policy Lab is a program for undergraduate students who are seeking advanced research experiences in collaboration with an SPA professor.

Every Fall semester SPA faculty will be invited to provide a 300-word description of a research project they are working on and a 200-word description of what an undergraduate research assistant could do to advance the project.

In November, December and January, SPA undergraduate students will be invited to review the proposed faculty projects. The faculty research projects are posted on the website and students are encouraged to determine which project best fits their academic interests. It is highly beneficial for the student to meet with the faculty member whose projects they are interested in before applying. When submitting an application, the student should rank projects by interest as 1st, 2nd, and 3rd choice. A short statement is required for the application. A written statement for each ranked project is not necessary, but just a general explanation of interest and what skills the student can bring to the project. A letter of reference or recommendation is not needed from the research faculty member that they want to work with. Not all projects are necessarily funded. Therefore, it is in the student’s best interest to have 3 ranked choices in case they are not able to get their first choice.

After the January deadline for student applications, faculty members are sent a list of students that are interested in their projects. Faculty will then rank students they’d like to work with by 1st, 2nd, and 3rd choice. It is beneficial to students to meet with the faculty member of their interested project to build rapport, which in turn could help them be ranked higher by the faculty member after the application deadline.

The Dean’s Office will review the applications including the faculty project descriptions, the student applications and the letters of reference. The Dean’s Office will award faculty student teams. Each team would get $1,000 for the faculty member and $3,000 for the student.

The student will conduct research for the faculty member over the summer up to 20 hours a week. Students will write a research brief of their work, due at the end of September. Student awardees will be encouraged to engage in an independent study research project with their paired faculty member that might result in a published research project for which the student would get formal recognition in the publication. Students would write another research brief of their work.

If a student does an independent research project and is then admitted to the SPA Honors program for their third year they will be allowed to count their project toward an SPA Honors Colloquium.

The application is closed. The deadline for submitting was January 27, 2022.

Kemo Grant

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Students Gain New Insights Through Public Affairs and Policy Lab

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SPA Public Affairs and Policy Lab Info Session - 2021

SPA Public Affairs and Policy Lab Info Session - 2021

Faculty Projects (Summer 2022)

Khaldoun AbouAssi, Department of Public Administration and Policy

As of December 2020, over 80 million people worldwide have been forced to flee their homes and over 26 million have left everything behind, including their native countries, in the hope of finding safety and security. With 20 people newly displaced every minute (that’s 30,000 displacements per day) and a projected 150-200 million climate change refugees by 2050, the problems and challenges of creating and coordinating effective multilateral humanitarian response programs will only grow. Today, over five million refugees live in camps around the world. These camps are managed through complex, multi-organizational arrangements involving myriad international, national, and local organizations from the public, private, and nongovernmental sectors. There are abundant studies and research on the sociopolitical and economic conditions of the refugees and the camps. However, beyond the technical aspects of camp planning and construction (e.g., layout, water and sanitation systems), very little is known about how camps are managed and operated: how services are delivered and activities are coordinated and by whom; how actors across boundaries collaborate and make decisions; and how refugees are involved in the process. Public administration, which is concerned with the development and implementation of public programs and policies and the provision of services, is implicit to refugee camp management. The purpose of this research project is to study refugee camps management by applying public administration concepts and frameworks. This project is in an early stage that requires developing two databases: 1) one for existing studies, reports, and academic publications that focus on the management of refugee camps; an analysis of this archive provides a better idea of the gaps in the literature that need to be filled; and 2) one for organizations operating in refugee camps around the world.

How could an undergraduate research assistant contribute to this project?
The student will conduct archival search on existing studies, reports, and academic publications that focus on the management of refugee camps. This search will help build a database of existing literature. The database will then be coded to identify main themes which could be used for basic thematic analysis to determine and interpreting certain patterns in the existing literature.

The student will also work on building database of organizations (public agencies, nonprofits, transnational NGOs or international organizations) serving or operating in refugee camps in different parts of the world (Asia, Middle East, Africa, and Europe). These organizations will be categorized based on their type and role and will then be contacted in a later stage of this research project to participate in a survey.

Korneliya Bachiyska, Department of Government

Drawing on research completed with the European Public Affairs and Advocacy Institute (EPAAI) over the spring, this project aims to compare the regulatory policies that govern the work of lobbyists in the United States and the European Union. Questions that the project aims to answer include: Why and when do interests mobilize? What strategies do they employ? When and how do they impact government policy? The specific aim of this project is to establish how the bodies that regulate the advocacy process in the US and the EU differ. The EU and the US are ripe for comparison as they combine intergovernmental bargaining (at the federal level in the US) and supranational authority (at the EU level) and comprise of overlapping regulatory processes. For example, the European Commission is responsible for the management of EU finances, and as such is lobbied both by member states and EU interest groups, especially in the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which most closely resembles the US rent-seeking models with logrolling and pork-barrel politics (Coen and Richardson, 2009). 

The project aims to establish the role of interest groups in the policy process from agenda-setting to implementation. Furthermore, I seek to evaluate whether there is a difference between establishing trust between public officials and interest groups as a prerequisite for formulation and dissemination of policy in a pluralist manner or what the public largely perceives as “insider lobbying” and widening of the democratic deficit in both the EU and the US. 

The main goal of this stage of the project is to compile a comprehensive database of the regulatory mechanisms in the US and the EU, outline the main actors and their strategy, and find similarities and differences between how interest groups mobilize, and what their effectiveness is on the two sides of the Atlantic.

How could an undergraduate research assistant contribute to this project?
The research assistant will work closely with me to complete the first part of the project - establishing a database of regulatory policies and laws at the European Union level. We will begin by collecting information on laws and regulatory policy from official EU documents. We will focus on regulation at the three main institutions - the European Parliament, the European Commission, and the European Council. After compiling the most current policies and laws guiding advocacy processes, we will categorize them to establish a scorecard for ease of access to the institutions. The EU comprises numerous overlapping institutions and competencies, which makes advocacy efforts especially hard - the aim of this part of the project is to set the legal parameters within which interest groups can operate and establish how that determines the strategies they use to mobilize effectively. I am especially interested in how the context in which interests operate (regulatory framework and complex bureaucracy) creates opportunities and challenges for direct lobbying and the emergence of fluid issue-based coalitions and the practical impact of the consultation process that has led to a distinct EU advocacy strategy. Time permitting, we will do the same for the US regulatory process. 

Some familiarity with the EU or public advocacy in general will be useful but is not required. Interest in the topic, an eye for detail, and ability to get through complex material efficiently is highly desirable.

Julie Baldwin, Department of Justice, Law & Criminology

The purpose of this study is to understand the experiences of offenders with a history of military service. This study utilizes primary data collected in my previous study, Multi-site Evaluation of Veterans Treatment Courts funded by the National Institute of Justice. These data include in-depth interviews with these military veterans and current military personnel in contact with eight veterans treatment courts across three states. In this study, our focus is on the experience of these individuals in terms of their military experience and how it has affected their lives in areas such as physical, mental, and behavioral health, including substance use and misuse; transition from military to civilian society; social and familial relationships; and criminal justice contact, as well as many others and the intersections thereof. Additionally, we will examine their experiences in veterans treatment court programs, substance abuse treatUndergraduate research assistants (URAs) are paramount to the success of this project. For this project, URAs will transcribe the in-depth interviews with these military veterans and current military personnel. If interested, the URAs will be able to note areas that they find interesting and have the opportunity work with Dr. Julie Baldwin on research publications. Benefits to the URAs who participate in this project include gaining qualitative research experience, expanding their research networks, and having the opportunity to co-author research publications and potentially work on future funded research.ment, mental health treatment, and veteran-to-veteran mentoring. We seek to identify pivotal events and experiences in the life course and how those have affected these military veterans throughout the life course.

How could an undergraduate research assistant contribute to this project?
Undergraduate research assistants (URAs) are paramount to the success of this project. For this project, URAs will transcribe the in-depth interviews with these military veterans and current military personnel. If interested, the URAs will be able to note areas that they find interesting and have the opportunity work with Dr. Julie Baldwin on research publications. Benefits to the URAs who participate in this project include gaining qualitative research experience, expanding their research networks, and having the opportunity to co-author research publications and potentially work on future funded research.

Andrew BallardDepartment of Government

Building on recent work published in top political science journals, I am undertaking three data-generating efforts to better understand the role of the minority party in crafting the content of policy in Congress.

First, through a novel application of text-reuse and machine learning methods for text analysis, I am currently building a dataset of the sections of bills, with indicators for whether the text of each bill section was later reused in a bill that passed the chamber. This data will have many uses, including giving us purchase on how and when policy changes as it moves through the legislative process, and how the minority party influences this process. 

Second, these bill sections will additionally be coded for policy content, as the specific issues that texts deal with is of the utmost importance for understanding policymaking. While data sources already exist that code bills for policy content, bills are only given a single policy topic code in such schemes. Bills before Congress are complex, often dealing with multiple subjects. Indeed, in coding a sample of bills for policy content, more than 1 in 3 sections has a different topic code than its parent bill.

Finally, in another effort to understand how party relations affects the content of policy, I am building a dataset of major legislative negotiations in Congress. I will use multiple indicators to identify instances where each party offered proposals on a topic during the same time period, as well as catalog all meaningful policy changes and deals made to alter those proposals. The result of this effort will be a dataset detailing how much each party got of what they wanted when engaging in meaningful negotiations.

How could an undergraduate research assistant contribute to this project
Research assistants can be invaluable in each phase of this project. In terms of breaking bills down into sections and identifying cases of text reuse, we must hand code a sample of matches from which to build a classification model that predicts text reuse from text similarity statistics. 

In terms of coding sections of bills by policy topic, we also need hand-coded training data. Research assistants will read through sections and make decisions about which policy topics they deal with. 

In terms of building the dataset of major legislative negotiations, research assistants will help identify and code the outcomes of major legislative efforts. 

In each case, research assistants will be trained in the tasks they are to perform, and will work with other research assistants. The team will have regular meetings to discuss progress and any difficult cases.

TaLisa Carter, Department of Justice, Law & Criminology

Perceptions of justice have real-world implications. Individual beliefs about the criminal justice system, criminal justice professionals and broader concepts regarding justice manifest into law, policy, informal social interactions and everyday practices. Scholarship firmly establishes the differences in criminal justice experiences and outcomes for people based on their racial/ethnic identity. However, far less examine the role skin color plays in issues of justice. This project examines the relationship between perceptions of justice and colorism. Qualitative and quantitative data are collected. The next phase of the project involves data analysis.

How could an undergraduate research assistant contribute to this project?
As a result of their work on this project, an undergraduate research assistant will build/strengthen a wide variety of research skills that can be applied within the criminal justice system and other social science disciplines. Duties of the research assistant include the following:

  • Reviewing literature on relevant topics.
  • Training on how to analyze qualitative and/or quantitative data using the statistical software programs NVivo and STATA according to human-subject protocols. 
  • Working with the faculty member in preparing reports, manuscripts, and presentations that are appropriate for a range of audiences including academics and the public. 

Depending on progress, the assistant may have the opportunity for authorship on a peer-reviewed publication.

Suat Cubukcu, Department of Justice, Law & Criminology

While most Americans (56%) demand reform for policing, one way to reform policing is to make police officers more accountable for their misconduct. Police officers who abuse their power are more than likely to slip through the cracks of the system and avoid accountability, especially when they misbehave against Black citizens. Body-worn camera (BWC) technology has the potential to provide enhanced documentation of citizen and police interaction that can help investigators objectively assess police misconduct allegations. It is important, especially when police officers dispute the complainants’ allegations, and there are no witnesses to confirm or deny their statements.

This research will be an in-depth examination of the actual use of BWC videos in investigating citizen complaints. By using the investigation reports from the Chicago Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA), this research will 1) explore to what extent BWC videos are used in citizen complaint investigations, 2) examine in what circumstances BWC videos be present and contribute to the investigation process 3) analyze how the presence of BWC video footage changes the outcome of investigations, and 4) evaluate to what extent the presence of BWC videos reduce racial disparities in the investigation outcomes. 

In a previous study (Cubukcu, Sahin, Tekin, and Topalli, 2021), we examined the extent to which BWC deployment enhances the efficacy of evidence used to formulate a conclusion of police responsibility. We also investigated whether bias against complainants based on race would subsequently be reduced. This research will take our previous research a step further by analyzing the efficacy of BWCs in creating evidence and the impact of the actual use of BWC videos in the investigation outcomes. 

How could an undergraduate research assistant contribute to this project?
The student researcher will do content analysis on the summary reports posted by the Chicago Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA). These reports summarize investigation processes and outcomes for the citizen complaints of police misconduct. 
Student researcher is expected to: 

  1.  Do content analysis on the recent summary reports from Chicago Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA) investigations on the citizen allegations of police misconduct
  2. Generate officer and complaint level dataset based on the incident level investigation reports (Each incident may involve several types of complaints against multiple police officers involved in the incident)
  3. Enter the outcome of investigations (sustained, un-sustained, exonerated, or unfounded) for each citizen allegation against a police officer(s)
  4. Enter information on whether any body-worn camera video footage was present for the investigation
  5. Code the presence of other material evidence and witness testimonies
  6. Work with the faculty in analyzing the data and writing the manuscript.

Todd Eisenstadt, Department of Government

The faculty member in 2021 co-authored an introductory textbook on climate change policy (Climate Change, Science, and the Politics of Shared Sacrifice, Oxford University Press) featuring a half dozen case studies, including two written by GOVT majors (Lillian Frame on the debate about AU's divestment from fossil fuels in its endowment fund and Dan Barrow on the pros and cons of fracking in relation to climate change but also the local economy in Pennsylvania). The faculty member seeks student authors to write additional case studies on local, national, and international subjects. The student can "pitch" ideas to the faculty member, but they must be well-defined, feature a "policy" dilemma, and the student must be willing to work closely with the faculty member on editing, as they cannot be more than about 15-18 pages in length.

How could an undergraduate research assistant contribute to this project?
The undergraduate research assistant will take an idea (say for example "oil flaring" in Nigeria's extractive industry or the conflict over palm oil agribusiness in Indonesia or the role of coal interests in the vote for the US climate plan currently under consideration as part of the $3.5 trillion spending bill in the US Congress) and write an outline of a case, using the broad format of the cases in the book. The faculty member will supervise the student's outlining, researching, and writing of the case. The faculty member will likely co-author the piece with the student, but if the student has expertise and has the researching and writing skills (after the faculty member and student have thoroughly discussed an outline), the student may appear as sole author of the case. The faculty member would like to hear from students with concrete ideas of topics they wish to address, but those topics should fit the case study format (discretely defined, two or more plausible positions students can take in role-playing exercises, addressing broader issues of climate change and environmental policy, and readily covered in 8000 or 9000 words). In short, this could be a great opportunity for a motivated student to write on a meaningful topic, work closely with a faculty member, and get a writing sample which will be used in the classroom.

Rob Engel, Department of Government

Discussions are underway at the university regarding the proposed founding of a Center for Disability Advocacy and Education (CDAE). The goal of the CDAE is to amplify the history of the disability rights movement, call attention to its present, and impact its future. To meet this charge, CDAE will identify and transform policies and prevailing attitudes that hinder the full participation, self-determination, and equal opportunity of disabled individuals. Through its emphasis on advocacy, education, research, and community, CDAE will explore issues and policies that cut across political, economic, social, cultural and legal perspectives to become a place of learning, fellowship, awareness, and empowerment.

How could an undergraduate research assistant contribute to this project?
As part of the effort to create the Center, it is important for us to understand what other universities are doing in this space and to learn from them. The research assistant would help with the process of reaching out to disability studies programs at a number of other leading universities to ascertain how they operate as well as how they are organized, managed, and funding.

Andrew Flores, Department of Government

Most advances and activity around policies and rights of LGBTQ people in the United States happen in state policymaking. It is often thought that having out LGBTQ people in the lawmaking process would result in the passage of more inclusive policies and in the stopping of legislation that may be harmful to members of the LGBTQ community. However, answering these questions in social and political science can be difficult. One reason is the need to keep and maintain a database of out LGBTQ elected officials. Professor Emeritus Charles Gossett (Sacramento State University) has been actively maintaining and updating an archive of these data for decades. However, he plans to stop after this election cycle. This project seeks to document and replicate Prof. Gossett’s methodology to track out LGBTQ candidates for public office and those who gain office. This database can then be used by researchers to examine the influence of out LGBTQ policymakers on the policy process from a variety of methodological approaches.

How could an undergraduate research assistant contribute to this project?
The undergraduate research assistant will routinely meet with me and Charles Gossett to systematically document Prof. Gossett’s methodology and practice in updating his database. The assistant will then attempt to reproduce Prof. Gossett’s data for previous elections to assess reproducibility. Afterward, a methodology document will be developed with Profs. Flores and Gossett, and a research guide will prepare a team to apply the methodology for the November 2022 election.

Silvia Kim, Department of Government

Are small donors more ideologically extreme? We test this question through a large-scale stratified sample of donors in the 2020 and 2022 federal elections. Using FEC history, we sample donors at varying ranges of total contributions from extremely small to large donors and across varying electoral characteristics such as donation patterns, platforms, and partisan affiliation. Some of the key subgroups are

  • Donors to presidential/Senate/House candidates
  • Donors to incumbents/challengers/open seat candidates
  • In-district and out-district donors
  • Donors to political parties/super PACs
  • Donors via digital fundraising platforms/offline donors
  • Habitual donors/intermittent donors

We then test whether small donors show more extreme
distributions in partisanship and ideology compared to large donors. We further check whether similar patterns are observed throughout different subgroups of small donors.

How could an undergraduate research assistant contribute to this project?
This project offers a hands-on opportunity to field a large scale survey and analyze the results. The research assistant will print, assemble, and send out push-to-web mailers, working with The UPS Store. Once the responses to a Qualtrics survey start coming in, students will also send out compensations to select survey respondents. The research assistant will visualize and analyze survey responses via R.

Adrienne LeBas, Department of Government

This is an on-going data collection project aimed at producing more precise data on the location and character of election-related violence in Kenya. The existing event catalogue consists of nearly 4200 events reported in Kenyan newspapers from 1992 to 2007. This dataset allows us to answer several questions, such as how political violence changed over time in terms of perpetrators and victims, intensity, and scale. It will also allow us to evaluate differences between incidents reported in Kenyan newspapers and those reported in cross-national datasets like ACLED.

How could an undergraduate research assistant contribute to this project?
The undergraduate RA would be involved in updating this dataset and expanding its scope. This would involve learning how to navigate Library of Congress holdings, use microfiche, and web-scrape data. In addition to data collection, the undergraduate would be involved in data analysis and would acquire skills in cleaning data, creating graphics, and (depending on interest) more advanced data analysis. Ideally, the student has an interest in African politics and in developing statistical skills, but no prior expertise or training is required. There would be an opportunity to co-publish with the faculty lead and/or to use this data for a larger student research project. 

Kenneth Meier, Department of Public Administration and Policy

On May 21, 2021 the Governor of Texas signed into law The Texas Heartbeat Act which effectively banned abortions after the sixth week of pregnancy. The act authorized private individuals to enforce the law via civil suits against any individuals who perform or facilitate an abortion with a minimum civil penalty of $10,000. Although journalistic reporting has characterized this provision as a form of vigilantism, private individuals have been authorized to use civil suits for damages in a wide variety of policy areas including antitrust law, environmental protection, and civil rights violations among others. Less directly, government agencies have often used information provided by citizens to enforce pollution laws, criminal statutes, and in tax fraud have even provided money incentives to do so. This project seeks to examine the use of private individuals to enforce US laws with a systematic review of the literature in law, political science, and history. Questions to be addressed include: What policy areas contain provisions for either direct or indirect enforcement by private citizens? How do the incentives vary by policy area in terms of potential rewards to the citizen enforcer? To what extent are the existing laws actually used or are they generally just symbolic? What are the consequences of reliance on citizen enforcement for effective public policy? What are the implications for democracy and individual liberties? The issue of citizen enforcement of public laws has not been systematically addressed in the public administration and policy literature despite its frequent use. The objective of this research project is to produce a policy essay that assesses the costs and benefits of citizen enforcement as a policy implementation instrument. Both normative and empirical issues will be addressed.

How could an undergraduate research assistant contribute to this project?
"The proposed project can easily be divided into subsets where students could do literature reviews, gather legal and statistical data, and write assessments of policy impact. Module 1 is to document where in existing public policy citizen enforcement is authorized by starting with the known areas and then doing legal searches via LexisNexis, writing law summaries, and compiling a systematic inventory of laws and the incentives to use them. Module 2 attempts to determine how frequently existing laws are actually used though a review of both scholarly and journalistic sources and accessing
existing court data. Module 3 would examine the historical and policy literature for evaluations of citizen enforcement in terms of effectiveness, equity, and consequences for citizen interactions. Module 4 would be an assessment of the empirical and normative consequences of using citizen enforcement with attention paid to the impact on civic engagement, civil liberties, political polarization, and democratic implications. Student research assistants (more than one could be used given the different policy areas) could participate in any of these modules and gain experience doing policy and legal research that help prepare the student for graduate school in public affairs, law school, or other social sciences.

Cynthia Miller-Idriss, Department of Justice, Law & Criminology

The Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab (PERIL) at American University seeks three undergraduate interns to work on its Translational Resource Development (TRD) in summer 2022 under the supervision of Professor Cynthia Miller-Idriss and Research Assistant Professor Brian Hughes. As an empirically driven research lab, PERIL tests and develops strategies and resources for prevention and intervention to reduce extremism. Our TRD team works to tailor and empirically test strategies and resources for community members and practitioner groups including educators, mental health counselors and social workers, coaches, mentors, and youth group leaders, faith communities, and local governments and municipal offices. PAPL Interns will conduct primary research and assist with designing and tailoring resources in collaboration with our full-time research team and with external partners. German-speaking interns may also be assigned to our global team, working in partnership with colleagues in Germany. Applicants should be comfortable writing literature reviews, researching topics and analyzing findings using scholarly sources, helping develop questionnaires and protocols, writing concisely, giving presentations, and working on a team. All staff, including interns, are required to sign agreements related to confidentiality and security protocols, and are subject to background checks. We encourage individuals fluent in German to apply. For more information about what PERIL does, and who are as a lab, please visit our Twitter page and our website.

For examples of the work our translational resource development team has produced in the past, please visit

How could an undergraduate research assistant contribute to this project?
Undergrad research assistants will be an essential part of the broader teams engaged in these ongoing funded research and resource development projects.

Karen O'Connor, Department of Government

For a year and a half, along with two other faculty members, we have been using students to gather data to create the most expansive data set on Congress as to race and gender. 

The next step in the process will be looking to see how a bill becomes a law in the context what kind of witnesses are called. Does it make a difference if the committee chair is a woman?What is the impact of the percentage of women on the committee? These are only some of the questions we are seeking answer.

How could an undergraduate research assistant contribute to this project? 
The student will get to participate in all of the zoom meetings conducted as a full participant whose ideas are welcome and see how a team of researchers works. The assistant will code the kinds of witnesses who are called. The student will do research on particular bills to enrich the hard data on hand.

Lara Schwartz, Department of Government

I am writing a guide to campus discourse (manuscript due 9/1/2022) that will expose students to free speech principles as well as tools for connected communication, listening, and inquiry. The text will include some case studies and the accompanying instructor's guide will provide recommended readings, lesson plans, and other tools for integrating speech and discourse concepts into a course.

How could an undergraduate research assistant contribute to this project?
An undergraduate student can research examples of speech and discourse conflicts in education, build a bank of resources for educators, and work on case studies that would be interesting to and educational for peers- applying their understanding of the First Amendment, academic freedom, dispute resolution, and productive discourse.