Economics Professor Daniel Yi Xu Leads the Triangle Research Data Center at SSRI

Daniel Yi Xu
Daniel Yi Xu (Professor, Department of Economics, and Director, Triangle Research Data Center)

The Social Science Research Institute (SSRI) recently welcomed Professor Yi (Daniel) Xu to the SSRI team where he oversees the Triangle Research Data Center (TRDC). The TRDC consists of one secure computer laboratory, located at Gross Hall, where researchers can perform statistical analysis on non-public microdata from the Census Bureau’s economic and demographic censuses and surveys.

Can you tell us a little about your background?

I am currently a Professor of Economics at Duke University and also a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. This is my tenth academic year at Duke. My research expertise is the analysis of firm and industry performance using large-scale micro-level data. In particular, I contributed to the understanding of the key determinants of firm dynamics and innovation as well as their implication for aggregate economic development and growth. My work is highly empirical and often involves the use of novel data sources from a broad range of countries in addition to the U.S.

Why economics? Why Duke?

I believe Economics is fundamentally a subject about people. I like Economics because it provides a quite systematic framework for us to think about various important social phenomena, such as how we engage in the production process, how individuals interact in the marketplace, and how we organize ourselves into different forms of governance. To that extent, Economics is rigorous but also highly versatile.

Duke is obviously an excellent academic institution on multiple fronts. But for me, the most attractive part is a highly collegial Economics department, where we encourage works that break the boundaries of narrow disciplines and make fundamental contributions to push the frontier.

What interests you about data?

As my work is very much empirical, data is often one of the most important piece of my research. But more generally, I believe high quality data is the necessary condition for any scientific inquiries. On the other hand, the data does not speak for itself. One of the more interesting parts of our work as social science researchers is to interpret the data through the lens of our own narratives.

As an economist, what excites you about interdisciplinary research?

I believe Economics has the potential to be highly interdisciplinary. One of the exciting aspects of Economics is that we model and investigate individual behaviors. (Even firms are no more than just a technology that organize people collectively.) Economics has been evolving in terms of its methodology over the past decades, often borrowing heavily from scientific fields like math, stats, and engineering. But I believe at the core it shares the most fundamental topics with other social science disciplines for queries of technology, people, and our society.

How is the TRDC an important resource for Duke faculty, researchers, and students?

Great question. Part of the reason that I agreed to direct the TRDC is exactly its potential of engaging a broad range of Duke faculty, researchers, and students. The TRDC houses the confidential U.S. Census micro data, which are the building blocks for most of the public social and economic indicators. A potentially less known fact is that TRDC also hosts projects using non-public data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, National Center for Health Statistics, and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. These all substantially broaden the potential user base and purpose of the projects that can be conducted within the center. While these data all provide exciting research opportunities, they often require a somewhat cumbersome application process. One of our primary task here is to promote the utilization of this unique resource and help our Duke community to smooth out the access process as much as possible.

Our more ambitious long-run goal is to leverage on the unique position of TRDC and provide a platform for our faculty, researchers, and students to exchange ideas and build up collaborative projects. The fact that our data spans across a broad range of subjects like demography, firms, and health also would make these collaborations potentially interdisciplinary by definition.

Originally posted on the Social Science Research Institute website

Kyle Bradbury on Improving Global Energy Access through Machine Learning and Collaboration

Kyle Bradbury and Bass Connections team members.
Kyle Bradbury (far left) and members of the 2018-19 Bass Connections project team Energy Data Analytics Lab: Energy Infrastructure Map of the World through Satellite Data (Photo: Energy Initiative)

Kyle Bradbury is managing director of the Energy Data Analytics Lab at the Duke University Energy Initiative. Recently, the Rhodes Information Initiative at Duke (iiD) asked him to explain what he works on and how he involves students through the Data+ and Bass Connections programs. Here are excerpts from their conversation:

Locating Energy Infrastructure Using Satellite Imagery

My research focuses on how we can make energy systems more affordable, accessible, reliable, and clean using machine learning and data analysis tools. The team that I work with, we’re working on questions around understanding where energy infrastructure is using satellite imagery. One of the challenges in this space is called geographic domain adaptation. If I have an algorithm that’s able to find solar panels in California and I train my algorithm there, how am I able to then use that to find solar panels in Africa, Asia, or Europe? Being able to transfer that can really increase the impact of the research that we’re doing, but it leads to a lot of challenging technical issues.

Energy Access

Another research area that I’ve been working on with other members of the team is looking at how we can use data to address some of the challenges in the energy access space. Right now there are close to a billion people around the world that don’t have access to electricity, but we don’t necessarily know which specific communities lack access, and we don’t always know where the grid infrastructure is that could potentially provide access to electricity.

Student Engagement

iiD has been a fantastic resource, especially with their program Data+. Data+ is a ten-week summer program for undergraduates to deeply engage in a data-focused research project. Over the last few years, we’ve engaged numerous undergraduates to help us with our research. They produced datasets and laid the foundation for dozens of research papers that have been able to answer some of these really challenging questions at the intersection of energy systems and machine learning.

This year, Bradbury is leading a Bass Connections project team, A Wider Lens on Energy: Adapting Deep Learning Techniques to Inform Energy Access Decisions, which builds on the work of last summer’s related Data+ project.

Video by the Rhodes Information Initiative at Duke (iiD)

Janet Prvu Bettger on Interdisciplinary Collaboration

I have found leading Bass Connections to be professionally transformational for me as an educator”

Veronica Sotelo Munoz, Jackie Xu, Sahil Sandhu, and Janet Prvu Bettger at Duke’s Global Health Showcase.
Veronica Sotelo Munoz, Jackie Xu, Sahil Sandhu, and Janet Prvu Bettger at Duke’s Global Health Showcase

Associate Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery Janet Prvu Bettger is interested in what comes after a life-altering injury or illness, when a patient leaves the hospital and must learn to live with disability. She launched the Global Alliance on Disability and Health Innovation (GANDHI for short) to support innovative approaches that will help vulnerable people around the globe to gain functional independence and reintegrate into their communities after a devastating setback.

Bettger.This interdisciplinary project grew out of a 2015 Intellectual Community Planning Grant, when Bettger and her colleagues realized they “didn’t have the expertise in medicine and nursing alone to ask all of the right questions,” she said. They engaged additional faculty with different perspectives and brought students on board through a multiyear Bass Connections project in 2016.

Recently she reflected on some of the impacts of her involvement in collaborative inquiry at Duke.

A Series of Grants

We designed GANDHI in year 1 to compare strategies and policies in different countries that support patients’ transitioning home from the hospital and promote recovery from injury and illness. Faculty advisors who met in an April 2016 meeting supported by the Intellectual Community Planning Grant identified the need to study adult and pediatric systems of care separately. This led to a graduate student proposal (D-SIGN) to lead research focused on pediatric care.

GANDHI logo.

Faculty advisors also identified related research at Duke. This led to a proposal that was funded by the Josiah Charles Trent Memorial Foundation to support a global showcase of health systems strengthening research.

GANDHI leadership quickly learned that there was very little work in low-income countries. The PIs for GANDHI year 1 [Catherine Staton and Bettger] applied to NIH for a grant to build capacity for transitional care in Tanzania to support recovery after traumatic injury. We were funded with a two-year R21.

We designed GANDHI in year 2 to focus on stroke systems of care in the Asia-Pacific region. Our students’ interest in the potential of digital health technology led to a proposal to the Provost’s office for funding to create a China-based mHealth@Duke conference.

Bettger (third from right) with students and colleagues at the mHealth@Duke conference in China.
Bettger (third from right) with students and colleagues at the mHealth@Duke conference in China

The event quickly grew to be bigger than expected with a three-campus collaboration (Duke in the U.S., China, and Singapore). Duke Kunshan University secured funding from the City of Kunshan and a nonprofit partner AccessHealth to launch an academic, industry, and public partnership for digital health.

group photo from the conference.
Group photo from the the mHealth@Duke conference in China

Expanding Networks

We planned year 1 to give the students exposure to care in different countries. Every week in the fall semester we had a different country partner join our group meeting by video conference to describe hospital-to-home care transitions in their country. We had nine active non-U.S. collaborators who subsequently supported a group manuscript, key informant interviews, and several opportunities for students.

Student opportunities from the GANDHI network included a Bass Connections follow-on project for that summer (Uganda), an independent study in the subsequent year (China), a global health master’s thesis and summer field work (Argentina), and project planning for year 2.

I personally have continued to collaborate with many of these global partners. I am now on the steering committee for clinical trials in China, Argentina, Brazil (and Peru), have funded research with partners in China, Singapore, and Tanzania, and co-led symposia at international conferences with collaborators in the Netherlands, Argentina, and China.

year 1 funding diagram.

We planned year 2 to expose students to stroke care in the U.S. and China. Partnerships for year 2 are depicted below. These supported the symposium, clinical observations, three research studies, and several opportunities for students. Other student outcomes from the year 2 GANDHI network included two DukeEngage awards, two travel scholarships for conference presentations (Sanford policy and undergraduate research), and summer research funding.

Meetings at Duke Kunshan led to subsequent Bass Connections proposals (GANDHI 3.0 and mHealth in Nepal) with new partnerships.

year 2 funding diagram.

A Transformational Experience

I have found leading Bass Connections to be professionally transformational for me as an educator.

First, working with students across schools and programs brought new meaning to interdisciplinary research. Second, I learned the importance of establishing “baseline” with all content and skills, and leveraging unique talents, experiences, and knowledge.

Finally, I am forever committed to engaging undergraduate students in clinical and population health research and having these and other early career trainees understand their value in team-based science.

See the Together Duke academic strategic plan, and learn more about Bass Connections and Intellectual Community Planning Grants.

Emily Bernhardt on Interdisciplinary Collaboration

“I am engaging in a wholly new set of important questions about how mercury is being added to and cycling through the Peruvian Amazon”

Emily Bernhardt at a creek outside the Phytotron Building on Duke’s campus (Photo: Megan Morr).
Emily Bernhardt at a creek outside the Phytotron Building on Duke’s campus (Photo: Megan Morr)

Emily S. Bernhardt is interested in how humans affect the movement of water, chemicals, and energy through ecosystems. She’s the Jerry G. and Patricia Crawford Hubbard Professor in Duke’s Department of Biology and Professor of Environmental Sciences and Policy.

In the Peruvian Amazon, humans’ gold-mining activities are resulting in mercury pollution and deforestation. Bernhardt is leading a Bass Connections project team to study the impacts of this mining; other faculty members include Bill Pan, Ernesto Ortiz, and John Terborgh, joined by an interdisciplinary team of graduate and undergraduate students. Recently, she reflected on her involvement in this collaborative research project. Below are excerpts from her comments.

Engaging a Diverse Team of Students

Our Bass Connections team is really an amazing collection of people. Jackie Gerson [Ph.D. student in Ecology] is an incredibly capable lead and she did a great job recruiting and selecting students.

We have three global health/environmental health-focused undergraduate students. Two [Kelsey Lansdale and Eliza Letourneau] are seniors and both are conducting their honors thesis on component research projects within this study. Our sophomore student Melissa Marchese is conducting an independent study and already thinking about how to return for a second trip and use the data collected for her senior thesis.

Kelsey Lansdale, Jackie Gerson, and Melissa Marchese (Photo: courtesy of Jackie Gerson)
Kelsey Lansdale, Jackie Gerson, and Melissa Marchese (Photo: courtesy of Jackie Gerson)

These three great undergrads are complemented by three really impressive professional students. Tatiana Manidis is a MEM student who is interested in the human exposure part of this study. Chris Lara is a Public Policy master’s student from Colombia with 15 years of experience working at the UN on behalf of South American environmental policy issues. Natalia Rivadeneyra heard about our group and asked to join us. We were thrilled because Natalia is a practicing environmental lawyer in Peru who is at Duke earning her law LLM degree. She has started an environmental nonprofit in Peru and is assisting us with a comparative analysis of the legal and policy frameworks governing (or failing to govern) this illegal and highly polluting form of gold mining.

We are providing a truly unique and interdisciplinary educational experience for seven students from five degree programs, and I can honestly say I am learning a ton from all seven of them.

I am also realizing that my role is to facilitate. I am good at helping set agendas and priorities for groups and that is the one skillset this group collectively lacks. They are individually impressive and quite collaborative but need help pointing their considerable energies into a single direction.

A New Research Effort

This [Bass Connections project] has introduced an entirely new research effort for my lab group, allowing us to apply our tools in biogeochemistry and ecosystem science to a new problem of the Anthropocene.

I hope we will follow the same trajectory as our work on mountaintop removal coal mining, in which a small amount of seed money led to a decade of work and a major foundation and NSF grant as well as real impact on the science and policy arena surrounding this important environmental issue.

Data to Guide Policy Decisions

I am engaging in a wholly new set of important questions about how Hg [mercury] is being added to and cycling through the Peruvian Amazon. This would not have been possible without Bass Connections’ support. I think we are already generating vitally important information to guide management and policy—we are providing the first ever measures of soil and water methyl mercury (the bioavailable form) in Peru—and we are poised to provide far more.

A gold-mining operation on the Madre de Dios river (photo: courtesy of Jackie Gerson).
A gold-mining operation on the Madre de Dios river (Photo: courtesy of Jackie Gerson)

Data collected from this summer’s field work is accumulating. We expect to generate several high-profile papers and to have sufficient information to go after a much larger grant to continue and expand upon this research on Hg pollution associated with artisanal gold mining in one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots—Peru’s Madre de Dios river.

See other faculty profiles, and learn more about Bass Connections.

Christine Ogilvie Hendren on Interdisciplinary Collaboration

“One of the main things that makes our project work well is the sustained, diverse faculty engagement”

Christine Hendren.

Christine Ogilvie Hendren is Assistant Research Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering as well as Executive Director and Research Scientist at the Center for the Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology (CEINT). Since 2017, she has led a Bass Connections project team, DECIPHER, whose members work to understand and evaluate complex public health and environmental risk scenarios. Moving from the story of fluorinated chemicals to case studies in drinking water quality, the team has assessed decision-making from the perspectives of scientists and engineers, healthcare providers, legal and regulatory agencies and members of the public, as well as economic and cultural stakeholders across fields and interests. Next year will bring a focus on the risks and benefits of geoengineering the climate.

Hendren is involved in other interdisciplinary collaborations across campus. She received two Intellectual Community Planning Grants in 2018—one to lead the Duke Extracellular Vesicle Network, (DEVNet) and another to take part in the Duke Project on Risk and Resilience. She is also providing assistance to the first cohort of Collaboratory grantees on best practices in collaborative research.

Below are excerpts from Hendren’s remarks at a Bass Connections orientation for new team leaders.

Creating a Team

Our idea for DECIPHER (which stands for Decisions on Complex Interdisciplinary Problems of Health and Environmental Risk) was to explore a topic – risk – that is typically only learned about from one perspective. Even if you think you’re being interdisciplinary about risk, you’re often only considering engineering and policy, and you might not be looking at the problem through other lenses that really should inform risk-based decision making, including key insights from the humanities.

Bass Connections DECIPHER team.In the first year (2017-2018), our case study was the story of refrigerants (CFCs), ozone depletion and climate change. When creating the team, we decided that we needed perspectives from technology, we needed policy makers and stakeholders, we needed to question what it even means to say something with certainty, and we needed to have people holistically look at a problem and dissect it without the benefit of hindsight. We needed people to be able to grasp the larger issues to describe the “why” behind problems, with the idea that an understanding of how previous decisions proliferated risks we would have liked to avoid can provide insight for better current and future decisions.

At first, we thought we were going to create kind of an analog to Harvard Business case studies and our approach would be holistic environmental decision case studies. We thought we could break these case studies down and then teach others how to teach them. Instead, our final product ended up being a very detailed infographic and more of a meta understanding of how to bring people to the point where they could have an appreciation for these other lenses. For us, success meant all the students knowing the nuts and bolts of how a decision happened, understanding there were a lot of human factors and learning what had to go into the decision-making process.

Promoting Diverse Faculty Engagement and Academic Humility

One of the main things that makes our particular project work well is the sustained, diverse faculty engagement. In our case, it’s a recurring project with mostly the same faculty, but it’s all new students each time.

For us, the repeated engagement of different faculty members has been really important to success, and it’s what our students reflect on the most. I see the appreciation in the students for the fact that an undergraduate elsewhere may not ever have a relationship with a professor, outside of receiving information in class.

What multiple people have told me is that they found it interesting that we have people from different fields like law and engineering and decision science, and all around, the students can hear professors saying things like, “Oh, I don’t know!” or calling each other out and saying, “That’s actually incorrect, you need the backstory.”

For all of us in academia, it’s very common and comfortable to do that, but it was a real learning moment about academic humility and how to work together to create an environment for the students where they could point this out. This trading of relevant expertise and vulnerable questioning between trusted colleagues is such an important part of knowledge co-creation, but it struck me that it appeared novel to some of our students and made me really think about why that is. My advice is that anything you can do to disrupt those normal power dynamics of the classroom will be helpful, whether that be going to dinner together, going to a house of a person on the team or just being openly humble about what you know and what you don’t know and how you’re creating.

For the second year (2018-2019), we structured the project’s outputs to maximize those types of experiences a little bit more. We let the students break up into subgroups and each got to create its own narrative of a drinking water case. We ran the first part of the year as a boot camp where we had different experts from all different kinds of fields come in and teach the students different skills and lessons, such as how to use statistical analysis, how to understand and track the history of water treatment technologies and how to conduct a documentary-style interview.

Encouraging Student Reflections and Comfort with Uncertainty

We learned over time that these types of engagement experiences work best if you require the students to write a reflection, even if it’s just a paragraph saying “What did I get out of this? How do I think it’ll go towards the eventual output?”

I wish I had known beforehand how important it would be to continually remind the students, particularly if you have an undergraduate heavy team, that this is not a course; it’s a research project. Students might ask us, “Is this what you wanted?” In this case though, that shouldn’t be the question. The question we have to ask [the student] is, “What do you want to do?” The feeling of not being sure you’re doing it right is the feeling of research. That feeling of uncertainty should be a teacher to the students that encourages them to ask for help or use their resources. We had said at the beginning that this is not a class, but a joint research project. Then we said it again later, but I wish we would have explicitly said it every single week and explained the implications.

The Importance of a Good Project Manager

Kathleen Burns.The other piece of advice I have is to find a project manager. We couldn’t have done any of this without our excellent project manager [Kathleen Burns, Ph.D. student in English], who has actually been with us both years and makes all of this possible. And, working on this team has really helped her formulate her dissertation topic, so it has advanced her academically, too. We elevated her to be a co-instructor now, because she really is doing the work at that level, contributing to the knowledge development, the pedagogy and serving as a touchstone for the student projects with a much higher degree of availability than the individual faculty leaders might be able to provide. I highly recommend investing a lot of your budget in a good project manager; it has made a fantastic difference.

Join this Bass Connections project team on April 16 for Coal Ash, Lead, and Aging Infrastructure: Stories of North Carolina Drinking Water at Motorco Music Hall in downtown Durham.

See all current initiatives in the Together Duke academic strategic plan, and learn more about Bass Connections and Intellectual Community Planning Grants.

Jonathan Wiener on Interdisciplinary Collaboration

“These projects have been crucial to my engagement with colleagues and students across the university”

Bass Connections team members with Jonathan Wiener.
Photo by Beth Mann: Jonathan Wiener (right) and Christine Hendren (lower right) with Bass Connections students in front of their poster, The Saga of CFCs, Ozone Depletion, and Climate Change

“I came to Duke 25 years ago in order to be part of the multidisciplinary community here,” says Jonathan B. Wiener. “Duke was poised to launch a series of cross-cutting initiatives, and it was my good fortune to be part of creating some of them.”

Jonathan B. Wiener.Wiener is the William R. and Thomas L. Perkins Professor of Law at Duke Law School, Professor of Environmental Policy at the Nicholas School of the Environment, and Professor of Public Policy at the Sanford School of Public Policy. He has been involved in numerous research collaborations involving faculty and students from across the university, including Rethinking Regulation at the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the new Center on Risk at the Science & Society Initiative, a Collaboratory on Geoengineering, and six Bass Connections projects.

Recently he reflected on some of the impacts of his involvement in collaborative inquiry at Duke. The following are excerpts from our conversation.

Expanding Networks

These collaborative projects have been crucial to my engagement with colleagues and also with students across the university. [Bass Connections has] enabled me to work with teams to investigate complex topics like protecting the Earth’s stratospheric ozone layer and climate, how to assess and manage emerging technologies such as automated vehicles, and how to protect drinking water. [They] also enabled us to bring in speakers from outside Duke to enrich our conversations – for example, environmental diplomat Ambassador Jennifer Haverkamp, and former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx.

Bass Connections projects are also useful for connecting with students from different schools with different skills. For me, it was a good opportunity to connect with undergraduate students in particular, because most of my teaching is in the Law School, Sanford School, and Nicholas School. Duke’s undergraduates are so impressive, smart, and energetic. Bass Connections invites them to see how research projects are developed and to participate in a research team.

I’m currently working with several people on the governance of geoengineering, including Mark Borsuk, Christine Hendren, and Tyler Felgenhauer in the Pratt School of Engineering, Billy Pizer in the Sanford School, Drew Shindell in the Nicholas School, and Khara Grieger at RTI. Geoengineering is a strategy to prevent climate change, but it poses its own risks, so there is a key need for governance to avoid unwise or harmful deployment of geoengineering. We have written one paper that we’ve submitted to a journal, and we are going to apply for external funding for further research. For the Society for Risk Analysis annual conference, we organized and held a set of sessions on the governance of geoengineering [see part 1 and part 2] that featured speakers from Duke and other universities. We are also planning a Bass Connections project team on geoengineering for 2019-20.

Photo by Ben Shepard: Participants in the Center on Risk “head to head” discussion of AI: Risks and Responses: Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (Philosophy), Vincent Conitzer (Computer Science), and Jonathan Wiener (Law School and Center on Risk).
Photo by Ben Shepard: Center on Risk discussion on AI risks and responses: Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (Philosophy), Vincent Conitzer (Computer Science), Jonathan Wiener

We’re starting a new Duke Center on Risk, to be launched in the Science & Society Initiative, which grows out of a Provost’s Office planning grant. In 2018, we held a series of Risk Watering Holes, where more than 25 faculty gave short talks as a way for people to learn about different topics and methodologies. We also asked each speaker to touch on what types of colleagues he or she would like to collaborate with to better address risk. In Fall 2018, we started to hold more in-depth ‘head to head’ talks: so far we’ve held one on risks to Duke’s campus, and one on AI risks and responses. We have also sponsored external speakers and supported some students to go to the Society for Risk Analysis conference. Also, we have begun conversations with a group of undergraduates who want to create a student organization about emerging risks.

Publications from a Team of Researchers

Policy Shock book cover.Bass Connections projects can be very fruitful as funding for a team of researchers. I think it’s most fruitful when students help to design the research and produce a team project report.

Together with Ed Balleisen from the History Department, Lori Bennear from the Nicholas School and Energy Initiative, and Kim Krawiec from the Law School, we recently published a book, Policy Shock, that included a chapter coauthored by student contributors from the Regulatory Disaster Scene Investigation project of Bass Connections. An external grant enabled us to have a series of authors’ workshops with multiple chapter authors. We were able to bring in other colleagues at and outside Duke to broaden our set of case studies – on oil spills, nuclear power accidents, and financial crashes – so we could generate more comparative insights and lessons.

A graduate student in the Law School, Daniel Ribeiro, and I published a paper called “Environmental Regulation Going Retro” as an outgrowth of another Bass Connections project, Reviewing Retrospective Regulatory Review. This paper drew on Daniel’s dissertation research and my earlier work on the same topic.

One of last year’s Bass Connections projects was about adaptive regulation applied to the emerging technology of automated vehicles. Associated with that project, Lori Bennear of the Nicholas School and I are undertaking our own research and writing on the different options for adaptive regulation. We received a grant from the Provost’s Office, and we are writing a paper about how regulations can be designed to be adaptive as we learn more about changing technology, science, and society.

Photo by Braden Welborn: Jonathan Wiener (far left), Lori Bennear (fifth from right), and students on the Bass Connections team on adaptive regulation of emerging technologies host former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx (center).
Photo by Braden Welborn: Jonathan Wiener (far left), Lori Bennear (fifth from right), and students on the Bass Connections team on adaptive regulation of emerging technologies host former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx (center).

Approach to Teaching

I think one challenge has been in orienting everyone, students and faculty, to seeing the Bass Connections projects as collaborative team projects, rather than as conventional courses where faculty teach the students. There is a tendency by everyone to revert to the familiar default model of a professor conveying information to the students, whereas I think Bass Connections projects work best where everyone is a member of the team investigating something interesting, and at the beginning we don’t yet know exactly how we want to proceed.

Another aspect of Bass Connections is that these are team projects with multiple professors, and we faculty have to be able to share the time with each other and to collaborate on designing what the project will cover and what materials we’ll ask people to read. It’s very helpful to have a point person to coordinate that. This person can be a faculty member, a graduate student project manager, or both.

New Collaborative Efforts

Center on Risk logo.We are now launching a new Duke Center on Risk, based in the Science and Society Initiative. This is something I’ve wanted to do for many years, since I was president of the Society for Risk Analysis in 2008. Now is a great time to do this at Duke because it builds on the work that Mark Borsuk, Lori Bennear, I and others have been doing on rethinking regulation, on risk and resilience, and on specific applications and concepts like geoengineering, AI, extreme catastrophic risks, and risk-risk tradeoffs. We are grateful to the Provost for the planning grant and to Nita Farahany and the Science & Society Initiative for giving our center a supportive home.

In addition, we have started planning an event to be held at Duke in November 2020 on the EPA at 50. We have convened a collaborative group to brainstorm how we should organize this, including from the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, the Energy Initiative, Rethinking Regulation, our Center on Risk, and faculty from a number of different schools. We may try to do a Bass Connections and/or a Story+ project to engage students in helping to assess the history of the EPA. This EPA at 50 event will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the creation of the U.S. EPA in 1970, and it will build on similar events we have held at Duke on EPA at 20, 30, and 40. We’re seeing Duke’s schools, institutes, initiatives, and Bass Connections as all fitting into this collective effort.

See all current initiatives in the Together Duke academic strategic plan, and learn more about these seed funding opportunities:

  • Research Collaboratories (see RFP for projects in Energy and Water Resources; Race, Religion, and Citizenship; and Population Health, due February 15)

Mark Borsuk on Interdisciplinary Collaboration

“These opportunities have enriched my first two years at Duke tremendously”

Mark Borsuk with collaborators.

Mark Borsuk was quick to embrace opportunities to pursue collaborative research and teaching with his new colleagues after joining the faculty of the Pratt School of Engineering in 2016.

Borsuk.The Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering teamed up with faculty from the Law School, Sanford School of Public Policy, Nicholas School of the Environment, and Pratt to explore shared interests in risk analysis, decision-making, and climate change.

He received an Intellectual Community Planning Grant (ICPG) for the Duke Project on Risk and Resilience with Jonathan Wiener, Christine Hendren, Tyler Felgenhauer, Nita Farahany, Buz Waitzkin, and Lori Bennear, and a Research Collaboratory grant on the Decisions, Risks, and Governance of Geoengineering with Wiener, Felgenhauer, Billy Pizer, and Drew Shindell.

Borsuk is also involved in a Bass Connections project, Decisions on Complex Interdisciplinary Problems of Health and Environmental Risk (DECIPHER). Now in its second year and focusing on drinking water quality, the project is currently led by Hendren, Borsuk, Wiener, Ryan Calder, Richard Di Giulio, Priscilla Wald, and graduate student Kathleen Burns. DECIPHER will continue next year with a focus on the risks and benefits of climate geoengineering.

Recently he reflected on some of the impacts of his involvement with these groups. Below are excerpts from his remarks.

External Grant Proposals

The Duke Project on Risk and Resilience ICPG, along with Catalyst funding from the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, led to an NSF Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy, and Water Systems (INFEWS) proposal submitted in September 2018.

The Risk ICPG also contributed to an NSF Statistical and Applied Mathematical Sciences Institute (SAMSI) Year-Long Program Proposal on “Games and Decisions in Risk and Reliability,” which was selected for funding and will start in August 2019.

The Geoengineering Collaboratory is leading to an NSF Decision, Risk, and Management Sciences proposal, which will be submitted in January.

Extending Networks

The Geoengineering Collaboratory led directly to a day-long session at the Society for Risk Analysis Annual Meeting in December 2018. The Duke team proposed, organized, and participated in this session [see part 1 and part 2], which included a number of leading researchers in geoengineering, thus greatly extending the Duke team’s professional network.

Posters on the team’s preliminary geoengineering work were also presented at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Annual Meeting in December 2018, further extending the team’s reach.

The Risk ICPG supported a series of campus-wide events. These included several Risk Watering Holes and Head-to-Head Discussions on issues of risk analysis and policy from diverse perspectives. The events generated a lot of participation, including more than 30 faculty speakers and many more attending faculty, staff, and students.


The Geoengineering Collaboratory has already led to one submitted manuscript and two more in preparation. Two publications are in preparation as a result of the ICPG and Catalyst funding.

Engagement with Students

“The Bass Connections project has opened my eyes to the potential of fully inquiry-based, student-initiated teaching, learning, and research,” Borsuk states. “I have been impressed with students’ ability and ambition in structuring their own experience and drawing on the resources available to them, including faculty mentors, university resources, and community organizations. In addition to being an incredible experience itself, it has also informed the way I teach my more ‘conventional’ classes by identifying new ways to engage students in their own education.”

DECIPHER team poster.

Borsuk goes on to say, “The Risk ICPG has expanded the interdisciplinary scope of approaches and examples that I have incorporated into the classes I teach, including CEE 201: Uncertainty, Design, and Optimization; EGR 305: Engineering Systems Optimization and Economics; and CEE 690: Risk and Resilience in Engineering.”

To support student networks, the Risk ICPG provided funding support to two students to attend professional meetings and present their risk-related work. The group has also been coordinating with an undergraduate student group interested in organizing a “Risk Hack-a-Thon” in addition to other student activities.

Duke student and postdoc attendance at the Society for Risk Analysis and AGU annual meetings was paid in part from the Geoengineering Collaboratory.

Borsuk concludes, “I am extremely grateful for the opportunities that these seed programs have provided. They have enriched my first two years at Duke tremendously!”

See all current initiatives in the Together Duke academic strategic plan, and learn more about these seed funding opportunities:

  • Research Collaboratories (see RFP for projects in Energy and Water Resources; Race, Religion, and Citizenship; and Population Health, due February 15)

Photos at top: Borsuk (far left) with colleagues at the Society for Risk Analysis annual meeting; Hendren (bottom row at right) and Wiener (far right) with students at the Bass Connections Showcase

Christopher Bail on Interdisciplinary Collaboration

“My network has expanded dramatically, and I have been able to pursue new avenues of research”

Christopher Bail and a student.

At a moment when issues related to race, religion, and citizenship are sharply dividing Americans, Christopher A. Bail’s research on political polarization and social media feels especially timely.

Bail is the Douglas and Ellen Lowey Associate Professor of Sociology and Public Policy and the director of the Polarization Lab at Duke. The lab brings together scholars from the social sciences, statistics, and computer science to develop new technology to bridge partisan divides.

A key component of the Together Duke academic strategic plan is to provide faculty with new avenues of support for research and to extend collaborative efforts. In April 2018, Bail and five colleagues received a Research Collaboratory grant for the Polarization Lab.

Members of the Polarization Lab at Duke (Bail, Alexander Volfovsky, Katherine Heller, Sunshine Hillygus, James Moody, Guillermo Sapiro).“My network has expanded dramatically, and I have certainly been able to pursue new avenues of research as a result of the Provost’s [seed funding] initiatives,” he said. “In particular, my collaborations with Sunshine Hillygus, Alex Volfovsky, and Guillermo Sapiro have influenced my research trajectory considerably.”

Over the past year, Bail received grants from the National Science Foundation and the Russell Sage Foundation related to his work as director of the Polarization Lab. And in December, Bail and his colleagues learned that they will receive a grant from Facebook’s Foundational Research program to help support the lab.

“The Polarization Lab is a one-of-a-kind entity that has not only raised considerable extramural funding and conducted top-notch research, but it has also allowed me to dramatically expand my work toward the broader public,” he reflected. “Twenty-four major media outlets have covered our research thus far, and our article ranks #10 in public interest among all articles published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the same age.”

To expand the lab’s outreach, Bail arranged visits to Facebook and Twitter as well as a number of nonprofit organizations. He and his colleagues have also forged new ties to government. Bail serves on the Advisory Council to the National Science Foundation’s Social Behavioral and Economic Sciences Directorate.

On campus, Bail incorporated the research agenda of the Polarization Lab into numerous lectures in the Data Scraping and Text Analysis course he teaches in Duke’s Master in Interdisciplinary Data Science (MIDS) program. An open-source version of his MIDS class on social media data and text analysis is available. Bail is contemplating creating a course on political polarization and social media for undergraduates. Currently, four undergraduates are participating in Polarization Lab research.

Bail at the Summer Institute for Computational Social Science held at Duke in June 2018.Bail has taken advantage of other strategic funding opportunities. In 2017, he and several colleagues received an Intellectual Community Planning Grant for their project, Forum for Innovative Collaborations in the Empirical Study of the Social Sciences (FICESS). “The FICESS group is closely tied to my ongoing research helping to build the field of computational social science,” Bail said.

He noted that the FICESS group enriched his approach to hosting the second annual Summer Institute in Computational Social Science (SICSS) at Duke in June 2018. He cofounded this series of free training events, held concurrently at multiple universities, to introduce junior scholars to the field. Bail received related grants from the Sloan Foundation and the Russell Sage Foundation.

“We have open-sourced the entire curriculum for the Summer Institutes in Computational Social Science,” Bail said, “including video of all lectures, code, slides, and teaching materials.” In 2019, SICSS will run in 10 different locations, including Capetown, South Africa and Istanbul, Turkey.

Bail has also been involved in Duke’s Bass Connections program as a team member of SSNAP: Scientific Social Network Analysis Project and a recipient of course development funds for SOCIOL 347: Managing Networks.

See all current initiatives in the Together Duke academic strategic plan, and learn more about these seed funding opportunities:

  • Research Collaboratories (see RFP for projects in Energy and Water Resources; Race, Religion, and Citizenship; and Population Health, due February 15)

Images from top: Courtesy of Christopher Bail; members of the Polarization Lab at Duke (Bail, Alexander Volfovsky, Katherine Heller, Sunshine Hillygus, James Moody, Guillermo Sapiro); Bail at the Summer Institute for Computational Social Science held at Duke in June 2018