In today’s complex world, many scholars increasingly recognize the importance of policy in their research as they consider how their findings may be applied to contemporary social problems.   

To address this need for policy expertise in research, the Virginia Tech Policy Destination Area (DA) created the +Policy Fellow program in 2018. For the 2021 cohort of fellows, the Policy DA has expanded the program to not only place policy experts on research teams, but to also support policy experts as they expand their knowledge into new content areas.

“The +Policy Fellow program has traditionally provided support for interdisciplinary researchers to add a policy expert to their team,” explained Isabel Bradburn, Policy DA program director. “In this round, the Policy DA expanded the scope of the call to also include support for individual policy experts who are exploring new areas of interdisciplinary research with a mentor or more senior collaborator.”  

Under this expanded call for proposals, three researchers were selected to receive up to $12,000 in funding this spring and serve as +Policy Fellows.  

Jennifer Lawrence, assistant professor of political science in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, is studying ways to “visualize chemical policy” related to the fossil fuel industry through the use of environmental humanities methodologies, such as deep mapping. 

“Regulatory policies, such as the Toxic Substances Control Act, have often failed to safeguard public health and the environment due to protections for the economic interests and intellectual property rights of chemical companies,” said Lawrence. “Thus, citizens right-to-know about chemical exposures as the potential source of public and environmental health impacts has been limited.”

To explore the interaction of knowledge, policy and chemicals on humans and the environment, Lawrence will use deep mapping, an approach to “understand how physical geography and scientific analyses intersect with stories, images, and concepts,” which can be used to help bring about social, economic, and cultural transformations. 

She will map three layers as part of her research. The first will show how the fossil fuel industry molds public knowledge and science policy. The second will map chemical policy onto the Gulf of Mexico, a well-known site of chemical production and oil refinement as well as multiple toxic spills. The third will highlight cascading impacts of petrochemical processes along the Gulf Coast.

A key objective of her project is to deepen her expertise with deep mapping through partnering with other faculty, in particular, C.L. Bohannon, a faculty member in the Landscape Architecture Program in the School of Architecture + Design.

“As a public-facing scholarship, this project opens a space for citizens to understand policy dimensions that permit adverse environmental and human health outcomes, thereby raising questions about citizens’ rights to know and the state’s responsibility to protect,” said Lawrence. 

Stella Schons, assistant professor of forest resources and environmental conservation (FREC) in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, will serve as a +Policy fellow for a project focused on understanding incentives that motivate people to support tree planting efforts in urban environments. According to Schons, “planting trees can provide benefits in urbanized areas, such as mitigating air pollution, carbon storage, decreasing water runoff, and creating recreational opportunities.” 

The distribution of these benefits is not equitable among different groups as many lower-income households are more resistant to tree planting initiatives. Schons aims to explore the factors that affect low-income households' decision-making around tree planting in their neighborhoods and whether policy interventions or community involvement play a role. She will conduct her research using focus groups with 90 low-income households in the corridor between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. 

The project will enable Schons to expand her policy expertise from natural resource conservation and economic development in the tropics to urban environments. Schons will work under the mentorship of Eric Wiseman, an associate professor in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation.

“Since [Eric and I] started working together, I realized the relevance of urban forestry for development, including in areas of the Amazon region where I work. I believe there is a void in research in the economics of urban forestry and economic development that may be undertaken not only in the U.S. but also in other regions,” said Schons. 

The third +Policy Fellow, Melinda Miller, who is assistant professor of economics in the College of Science, will use financial records to study land dispossession of the Lakota Sioux Tribe in the early 19th century because of the General Allotment Act of 1887. Allotment was an aspect of Federal Indian Policy that aimed to assimilate American Indians by dividing up reservation land among individual tribal members; this process often contributed to the loss of ownership of the land by American Indians over time. 

“Although historians and social scientists believe allotment had a devastating impact on tribes, there is a limited knowledge of exactly what happened on the ground. I propose to use a previously unutilized data source, The Quarterly Abstracts of Individual Indian Bank Accounts, 12/4/1908 - 12/31/1921, to remedy this gap in knowledge,” said Miller.

Miller will pair this new data source, which contains detailed financial records of the tribal members who received the allotments, with other pre-existing data that she has collected, such as General Land Office Records and U.S. Census data. 

“My interest in understanding racial inequality and the social and economic challenges faced by the American Indian population has convinced me that understanding what happened on the ground is critical for understanding current economic inequality and proposing policy remedies to improve the economic status of one the United States’ most vulnerable populations,” said Miller.  

This new project will enable Miller to expand her labor economics expertise to include the financial literature and to forge a new collaboration with an economist at the Federal Reserve. 

To learn more about the Policy DA and its +Policy Fellow program visit https://www.isce.vt.edu/policysga.html.

— Written by Yancey Crawford