The Virginia Tech Policy Strategic Growth Area (SGA) is taking aim at helping research teams place policy considerations front and center in interdisciplinary projects focused on pressing contemporary issues.

The Policy SGA recently awarded three Virginia Tech research teams with funding to embed a policy “fellow” into their projects.

The overarching goal of the Policy SGA is “to integrate, connect, and expand policy knowledge and experimentation to foster new approaches to problem engagement and complex collective decision making,” noted professor David Orden in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and  co-chair of the Policy SGA research committee. The funding, provided as a “+Policy Research Supplement,” is designed to enable the teams to strengthen the participation of a faculty member with policy expertise and increase the visibility and importance of policy research at the university.

Each team received approximately $10,000 to support their +Policy fellow to engage in activities during spring and summer 2019 that will complement other resources and expertise of the team members. The awards will especially help the research teams that may not have the financial resources or faculty time available to develop the policy implications of their work without the start-up funding.

“New technologies, such as robotics and artificial intelligence, are poised to reshape the future landscape of jobs and work,” said Suqin Ge, associate professor of economics in the College of Science and the +Policy fellow for Whole-body Exoskeletons for Advanced Vocational Enhancement (WEAVE). The +Policy fellowship will allow Ge and colleagues to add a policy focus to a recent National Science Foundation Convergence grant the team received.

“With the growing skills gap in manufacturing, one of the most critical needs that limits the viability and success of industry advances is improving productivity while also ensuring worker safety,” explained Divya Srinivasan, assistant professor in the Grado Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering in the College of Engineering and one of the investigators on the project.  

Although whole-body exoskeleton is a potentially transformative new technology, it also has profound social and economic implications for American workers.

Exoskeletons may “equalize job opportunities by allowing diverse populations to enter and stay employed in physically demanding jobs that are otherwise inaccessible,” said Ge, who will enhance the research team’s assessment of these impacts on workforce diversification and labor productivity.

“This research will generate the first empirical models of the effects of technology augmentation on worker productivity and well-being, industry profits, and the labor market in general,” said Ge.

A second funded project focuses on gerrymandering, or the deliberate drawing of voting district lines to favor or exclude political parties or representation of racial and ethnic groups.

“Gerrymandering has been a controversial practice in the United States since its inception, but it has recently received heightened attention due to effective gerrymanders by Republicans following the 2010 census and a series of court cases addressed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018,” said Nicholas Goedert, assistant professor of political science in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences and the Redistricting Analytics at Virginia Tech (RAVT) +Policy fellow.

“These cases and subsequent court decisions have proposed many competing and sometimes conflicting metrics for the evaluation of bias in maps, with no resolution on a single preferred legal or empirical standard,” Goedert explained.    

The research team, which began meeting over the past year and includes faculty from the Pamplin College of Business and College of Engineering as well as the Center for Geospatial Information Technology, plans to develop an application that will be publicly available on the web and allow users to input policy objectives and create maps to optimize those objectives.

“Users will also be able to easily evaluate competing maps and see how changes to existing maps will alter the representation of specific groups or parties,” Goedert said. As a policy fellow, Goedert will contribute expertise in gerrymandering litigation and legislative procedure to the online application.

The third project funded by the Policy SGA will advance community and economic development in urban and rural areas across Virginia. This grant supports a team from Virginia Tech’s Office of Economic Development, Cooperative Extension, and the School of Public and International Affairs, which launched an interdisciplinary initiative called Vibrant Virginia in spring 2017.

Vibrant Virginia “engages and supports Virginia Tech faculty and external stakeholders in exploring urban and rural Virginia, by looking at connections and disconnects and documenting similarities and differences, all with an eye to highlighting opportunities for all stakeholders and identifying ways to address regional challenges,” said John Provo, director of the Office of Economic Development and one of the leaders of Vibrant Virginia.

As the +Policy fellow for Vibrant Virginia: Advancing Community and Economic Development across Urban and Rural Virginia, Margaret Cowell, associate professor of urban affairs and planning in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies, will translate the interdisciplinary work that comes out of Vibrant Virginia into a format and language that can be useful to external stakeholders and policymakers. Cowell will lead efforts to develop journal articles, op-eds, policy reports to state, and local governments and web products and an edited book manuscript.

The manuscript will “integrate findings from projects, campus conversations, regional showcases, and other Virginia colleges, universities, and institutions engaged in similar types of work,” said Cowell. “The book will explore the geographic divisions in Virginia to uncover opportunities, challenges, and interdependencies and propose synergistic policy interventions to move Virginia forward."

“We are pleased to be able to offer these new awards,” said Julia Gohlke, associate professor of population health sciences in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine and a member of the Policy SGA stakeholder committee. “We envision that the support for the + Policy fellows will result in more efficient and meaningful translation of important findings from Virginia Tech researchers to policy applications in these areas of critical concern.”

To view a list of the fellows and respective research team members or read the project abstracts, visit


Written by Yancey Crawford

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