précis Interview: Chappell Lawson on IPL

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  • Fall 2015

Professor Chappell Lawson (pictured above) serves as the Lab's faculty lead; other core affiliates and researchers involved with the initiative include Richard Samuels, John Tirman, Jessica Trancik, Andrea Campbell, Daniel Weitzner, and Ken Oye.

November 1, 2015

Earlier this year, CIS established the MIT International Policy Lab, whose mission is "to enhance the impact of MIT research on public policy, in order to best serve the nation and the world in the 21st century." The Policy Lab will award up to $10,000 to faculty and research staff with principal investigator status who wish to convey their research to policymakers. The deadline for submissions to the Lab's first call for proposals was December 6, 2015.

précis: Why did CIS establish the Policy Lab?

CL: MIT has an enormous amount to contribute to the policymaking process. We're generating first-rate scholarship and science that has clear policy implications and should inform public policy. But it doesn't always do so.

So we asked ourselves, what more can we do on our end to make the transmission belt between academia and policy run more smoothly. There's enormous appetite in policy circles for the product that MIT generates. MIT has an unparalleled brand name. And it is perceived as producing ideologically neutral, technically-based research. That appeals to people on both sides of the aisle in Washington.

MIT is an institution that draws heavily on federal research dollars. I see this as an opportunity for us to give back—not just through the impact of our research on society but also through our research informing policy debates.

I'm in the middle of my third stint in Washington, now as a part-time government employee while still full-time at MIT. I see how important it can be for policy to be informed by cutting edge research. This is an opportunity to enhance the policy debate.


précis: Who should submit proposals?

CL: We are a service to the MIT faculty. Our target is faculty members who have an appetite for engaging with the policy community (broadly defined) and whose work has some implications for policy, but who are not currently intimately involved in policy debates or who are already involved but want to have a greater impact.


précis: How does the Policy Lab help?

CL: Our goal is to do three things. First, we ask: what sort of impact do faculty want to have, given the amount of time they're willing to invest? Second, we provide modest grants for travel or translational material, such as policy briefs based on their research. And then we choreograph their trips to Washington or elsewhere so that they meet with as many of the right people as possible.

In addition to the modest grants, we also have staff resources to support faculty.


précis: When will applicants be able to move forward with their projects?

CL: They'll hear back in time to do something over IAP. We want the process to be nimble.


précis: Where does the Policy Lab's funding come from?

CL: The funding comes from the MIT Office of the Provost, the Dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Science (SHASS), and the Center for International Studies.


précis: You've had several stints in government, most recently under the Obama administration as executive director and senior adviser to the Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. What sparked your personal interest in government service?

CL: I grew up in Washington DC and always had an interest in federal policy. As a political scientist, I understand how important policymaking is for a country's safety and prosperity. For me this is an opportunity to join my long-term interest in politics with my deep commitment to the Institute.


précis: Can you tell us about your current research?

CL: When I was last in government, I worked on issues related to our land borders, as well as air borders and seaports. Customs and Border Protection must facilitate legitimate trade and travel in an era of pronounced security concerns. This is a challenge I'm continuing to think about.

Another project I'm working on is targeting. One aspect of border management is to be able to better identify potentially dangerous individuals or shipments bound for the United States within the vast flow of goods and people that pose no danger whatsoever. How can we get better at fusing all the information that the federal government has, including information from state, local, and foreign partners to better make an adjudication about risk without compromising civil liberties and privacy?

There are many borders in the world where international conflict is not a realistic scenario, but where trade flows are vast. How can we manage those flows more efficiently? It's extremely important for global competitiveness in an era of global supply chains. This is a subject I'll be returning to when I finish my current tour with the government.


précis: Has the Policy Lab seen results so far?

CL: All the projects are sufficiently nascent that we don't expect them to have dramatic results yet. But it's clear that the people involved are directly and successfully engaging with policymakers. This could be regulators interested in synthetic biology. It could be people at the EPA drawing up guidelines and projections for methane emissions. It could be understanding trade regimes for dual-use technologies.

We're very pleased by the extent to which we've been able to help faculty members make the right connections to policymakers and be involved in policy debates that are directly related to their research. I would expect dozens if not hundreds of MIT faculty members to be logical clients for the policy lab. I'm particularly excited about the prospect of collaboration of faculty members involved in large-scale, mission-driven, Institute research projects in areas such as the environment, health care, and energy.

There are a number of faculty members who have served in Washington. But people don't have to leave their job to have an impact if we can facilitate that connection for them. For some people, this may be a very brief one-time engagement. For others it could lead them to something that they find much more appealing. Either way, we're there to help.


précis: Tell us about the proposals.

CL: For the first year we reached out to individual faculty members. Now the time has come to open it up as a formal call for proposal for all faculty members. At the very least we'd like to help people do more of what they were already planning to do. More ambitiously, we would like to interest a larger number of faculty members in policy debates related to their research. We encourage people to submit more than one grant if appropriate. We have the ability to support a significant number of projects. I'm very excited to be working with my faculty colleagues on the next phase of the IPL. There's a lot of affiliated faculty. We're also very happy about the close relationship we have with the MIT Washington Office and the support we've had from MIT's upper administration.