In the past year alone, research by the institute’s faculty has earned the attention of world leaders and sparked public discussion that at times leads to significant legislative and policy changes.
Catherine Lutz, a professor of international studies and anthropology, co-founded the Costs of War Project at the Watson Institute to provide the fullest possible account of the human, economic and political costs of all American military conflicts following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In recent years, reports from Lutz and her colleagues have received extensive international news coverage and have been cited on the floor of the U.S. Senate — illustrating their considerable impact.
Watson integrates and enhances work across the social sciences at Brown with an emphasis on first-rate scholarship that is relevant to policymaking. As the institute is already demonstrating, Watson has the opportunity to become a leading center of knowledge and learning, fully calibrated to the needs of the 21st-century world.
— Ed Steinfeld, Watson Institute Director and Professor of International and Public Affairs
Watson-affiliated faculty members Ashutosh Varshney and Patrick Heller have developed a long-term partnership with a nongovernmental organization in India to study the connection between civic engagement and access to basic services in India’s cities, driving increased efforts to provide clean water to citizens across the country.
The work of Watson Institute scholars is defined by a combination of deep international expertise, rigorous data collection and analysis, and a commitment to collaborating across fields of study in search of new ideas and novel solutions. By building bridges between the social sciences and technical disciplines, the institute is uncovering new insights for reducing inequality, informing the views and decisions of leading policymakers, and uniting groups with divergent political and ideological views in robust debate.
Over the past five years, the Watson Institute has received more than $1.7 million in support from foundations and federal agencies to fund its ambitious, high-impact research and programs. These range from an annual conference that coordinates civilian and military humanitarian responses, to a study on the impact of the Common Core Standards Initiative, a set of K-12 academic standards that aim to address educational inequality, in a partnership with scholars at the University of Michigan and Stanford University.
Through the spring and fall of 2020, Watson faculty stepped up to help policy leaders and citizens alike grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic. Since May 2020, a real-time economic tracker developed in part by Professor of Economics John Friedman has provided a data-informed, up-to-the-minute picture of the rapidly shifting American economy during the pandemic, helping lawmakers craft policy more responsibly. Another economist at Watson, Emily Oster, created the website COVID Explained to answer the public’s most pressing questions about the virus, including how it spreads, how a vaccine will be developed, and how to behave in restaurants, schools and workplaces to stay healthy. She is also playing a lead role in tracking COVID-19 cases as the country’s K-12 schools resume in-person operations in 2020-21.
The Watson Institute has also reinforced its commitment to hosting scholars and practitioners with a wide variety of experiences and political perspectives. From presentations by the likes of Jim Yong Kim, former head of the World Bank and a senior fellow at Watson, to discussions between political leaders from opposing parties, to conferences that confront contentious global issues, Watson has become an important forum for conversations that change perspectives and shape policy. Its new home for landmark events like these is the sleek, state-of-the-art Stephen Robert ’62 Hall, the completion of which in 2018 added more than 30,000 square feet of physical space to keep pace with the institute’s programmatic growth.
Recent galvanizing efforts include “Partitions: A Global Perspective,” a conference that invited diverse, sometimes opposing perspectives on the history and implications of the borders between Israel and Palestine; a lively faculty forum on the policy implications of the impeachment of President Donald Trump, hosted by the Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy; and a teach-in on colonialism in the curriculum co-hosted by Watson and the Department of Africana Studies, part of an ongoing discussion aimed at ensuring that Brown continues to offer an inclusive, diverse and rigorous curriculum.
Faculty and esteemed visitors are not the only ones who make an impact at the Watson Institute. Students at Brown, both undergraduate and graduate, continue to change conversations and initiate new scholarship in international and public affairs. The unique, hands-on learning opportunities students have at Watson prepare them for lives and leadership careers in policymaking, international relations and security, where they can help bring about social change.
Much of the Watson Institute’s work earns an even greater spotlight during election years, and 2020 has been no exception. In this year’s highly contested, much politicized U.S. presidential election season, the institute has provided a venue for students and scholars to explore ideas in depth, focus on issues rather than rhetoric, and ensure that members of the Brown community and beyond are well-informed.
Recently, students participated in a course that unpacked how democracies fail — the curriculum created in large part by Brown political scientist Robert Blair and a course so successful that it was adapted for use by 19 other universities. And in Angela Blanchard’s course titled Disaster, Displacement and Response, students working toward a master’s degree in public affairs studied real-world disasters, such as hurricanes, political crises and immigration issues, and created their own disaster response plans.
Practical, student-centered experiences like these prepare graduates who are currently solving domestic and global challenges as analysts, researchers and managerial professionals involved in making, analyzing or implementing public policy, whether in government and nonprofit organizations or at consulting firms in the private sector.
Through Brown's ongoing support for Watson’s programs and student and faculty scholars, the institute will continue to make a true impact on confronting some of the most difficult issues of our time.