What do labor markets, wage inequality, storytelling, community development, and social construction of disabilities all have in common?

They represent some of the diverse policy interests of faculty who gathered for the Virginia Tech Policy Strategic Growth Area’s (SGA) first two open forums.

The purpose of the forums was to “provide an opportunity for faculty from diverse disciplines to come together to share their interests and make new connections related to policy,” said Isabel Bradburn, research director in the department of human development and Policy SGA program manager.

The two events, held in Blacksburg on Oct. 19 and in Northern Virginia on Nov. 13, did just that. More than 50 faculty members representing seven colleges, 16 departments, and four institutes, including new hires and tenured professors, discussed their research, its policy implications, and ways to advance policy scholarship at the university.  In the process, the potential for future collaborations grew.

Policy SGA faculty co-leads Karen Roberto, a University Distinguished Professor and director of the Institute for Society, Culture, and Environment, and Anne Khademian, director of the School of Public and International Affairs, kicked off the events by welcoming participants and providing overviews of the area.

Highlights the group’s recent activities include conducting a faculty survey to gauge interest and policy expertise across campus; funding of three interdisciplinary research projects that focus on policy issues surrounding nuclear energy, rural health, and siting sustainable energy; participating in two cluster hires; and partnering with the Global Systems Science Destination Area that began with a joint workshop this fall.

The Policy SGA provides a space to develop novel approaches to policymaking and policy analysis by focusing on the dynamics of complex decision making in multiple contexts and settings.

“The Policy SGA can play a cross-cutting role by working at the intersection of scientific evidence and governance, and translating scholarship to practice,” said Roberto.

David Orden, director of the Global Issues Initiative for the Institute for Society, Culture, and Environment and co-chair of the area’s research committee, noted how “each of the research project areas is fundamental to the future of the country and supports Virginia Tech’s focus on advancing the human condition.”

Todd Schenk, assistant professor in the urban affairs and planning program, and Navid Ghaffarzadegan, assistant professor of industrial and systems engineering, co-chairs of the Policy SGA curriculum subcommittee, described curriculum activities that are underway. These include the creation of a gateway course for undergraduates and a 4+1 degree for nonpolicy majors that would result in a master’s degree after an additional year of policy-related coursework.

“The forum provided an excellent opportunity to gather feedback and engage new members as we take the critical next steps as a curriculum committee,” said Schenk. “There were great discussions around both potential gateway courses, and the 4+1 ‘plus policy’ idea. We hope that a wide variety of faculty and staff will actively engage in developing these proposals with us as we move forward.” 

As part of the breakout session at the Blacksburg forum, faculty from sociology, political science, agricultural and applied economics, and fish and wildlife conservation explored areas of commonality, synergy, and potential collaboration.

“For me, the forum was an opportunity to meet colleagues working and researching in policy — colleagues I would not likely have met without the forum. A large campus like ours can be isolating. The traditional boundaries of academic disciplines are not particularly conducive to multidisciplinary work,” said Amanda Nelson, an assistant professor in the School of Performing Arts at Virginia Tech. “For the study and practice of policy though, cross-disciplinary conversation is essential. The forum cracked an opening and prompted dialogue. Now we just have to break that crack wide open!”

The forums also provided a platform for participants to raise questions about recent policy-oriented cluster hires and future directions of the group.

“There was a friendly sense of excitement and energy to the forum — so much so that we had to encourage small groups to move their conversations to the hall when we had to clear the room after the event. It was clear that faculty really wanted to talk to each other and make new connections,” said Bradburn.

In the National Capital Region, Khademian said that they are “planning a second meeting for early in the new year to capitalize on the event’s momentum.”

As a way to support these continued conversations and foster interdisciplinary research teams, the Policy SGA issued a rapid call for applications and awarded planning grants to teams that applied from different colleges and disciplines. Results of the grants will be shared at a spring 2018 PSGA forum.

"The cross-disciplinary connections that are being created through these Policy Strategic Growth Area forums are an excellent example of the collaborative approach that is driving all of our Destination Areas and Strategic Growth Areas," said Cyril Clarke, interim executive vice president and provost. "I commend these faculty and program leaders for actively seeking ways to expand access to the work of the Policy SGA so that other segments of our campus community have opportunities to engage and contribute."

For more information about the policy SGA or the planning grants, visit their website at https://provost.vt.edu/destination-areas/sga-overview/sga-policy.html

Written by Yancey Crawford

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