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Our team develops novel approaches to policymaking and policy analysis by focusing on the dynamics (e.g., inputs, outcomes, impacts) of complex decision making in multiple contexts and policy settings.

Policy, Destination Areas, Virginia Tech


Policy News

Analyzing census data to draw impartial voting districts
Grado Department of Industrial Systems Engineering Assistant Professor, Robert Hildebrand, is a member of a team that analyzes census data to ensure that voting districts in Virginia are fairly drawn, counteracting the practice of biased gerrymandering.

Supported Projects

Research Projects

College of Architecture and Urban Studies
Laura Jensen (School of Public & International Affairs)

College of Engineering
Denis Gracanin (Computer Science)

College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences
Sharon Ramey (Human Development)

College of Science
Angela Scarpa (Psychology)*

* Team Leader

This initiative will conduct policy research on the use of technology to facilitate access to evidence-based autism spectrum disorder (ASD) services in rural communities, addressing rurality as a factor causing social inequity. The project will 1) conduct a systematic assessment of barriers to services access for parents of children with ASD in rural, under-served communities; 2) conduct a workshop panel on rural needs to provide leadership and policy implications; and 3) apply the information to develop an internet-based, parent training for ASD in a rural agency for future testing. Additionally, the aim is for this to be a community-based participatory research design between Virginia Tech (VT) and a rural agency, to collect qualitative and quantitative data in a specific rural setting. This will position VT for implementation of evidence-based parent training that innovatively integrates face-to-face and telehealth formats to serve specified client needs. Thereafter, this model can be tested in larger feasibility and effectiveness trials and be disseminated for use in other locales to address place-based social disparities in their access to ASD care. The program will capitalize on a multidisciplinary team from the VT Center for Autism Research, the Center for Human Computer Interaction, the Center for Public Administration and Policy, and the VT Carilion Research Institute to collect pilot data informing a collaborative NSF grant. This project also aligns with the Virginia Tech Equity and Social Disparity in the Human Condition Strategic Growth Area, the Adaptive Brain and Behavior Destination Area, and the Intelligent Infrastructure for Human Centered Communities Destination Area. 

College of Architecture and Urban Studies
Ralph Hall (School of Public & International Affairs)
Patrick Miller (Architecture & Design) *
Todd Schenk (School of Public & International Affairs)

College of Business
Anju Seth (Management)

College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences
Richard Hirsch (History and Science & Technology Studies)

College of Natural Resources and Environment
Mark Ford (Virginia Cooperative Fish & Wildlife Research Unit)
Scott Klopfer (Conservation Management Institute)
Ron Meyers (Fish & Wildlife Conservation) *
Peter Sforza (Center for Geospatial Information & Technology)
Marc Stern (Forestry & Resource Conservation)

Biocomplexity Institute
Achla Marathe

* Team Leaders

The legal, moral, and strategic imperative to address the threats posed by climate change necessitates an extraordinary increase in the number of wind and solar facilities for significant reduction in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Wiistenahngen, et al., argued that social acceptance may be the limiting factor for renewable energy development. Building a large number of these facilities will be challenging due to economic, environmental and social challenges with siting commercial-scale renewable energy facilities.

The transdisciplinary Renewable Energy Facilities Sustainable Siting Project (REFSS) will conduct a coordinated research strategy to identify how to site renewable energy facilities in a more publicly acceptable way via university, industry, government, and community partnerships. The action research will help reduce uncertainty for renewable energy developers and financiers and allow local and state governments to develop policies that will enable affected communities to engage more effectively in the highly complex decision-making processes required to site renewable energy facilities so that they are economically, socially, and environmentally beneficial.

This research and service project brings together expertise from the social sciences (including public policy), visualization and geospatial technology, landscape architecture, business management, and fish and wildlife management, for the development of a comprehensive model for addressing siting challenges. The knowledge generated should have significant policy application at the local, state, and national levels. This project is in its early stages, so several options for development will be explored, with decisions made in consultation with the Policy SGA on priorities and directions.

College of Architecture and Urban Studies
Ariel Ahram (Government and International Affairs/School of Public & International Affairs)
Patrick Roberts (Center for Public Administration & Policy/ School of Public & International Affairs)

College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences
Sonja Schmid (Science, Technology & Society)

This project takes an interdisciplinary perspective on issues of nuclear safety, security, and safeguards. Nuclear energy has great potential as a carbon-neutral, base-load energy source. Yet, nuclear energy also poses grave concerns about a) safety and the risk of a severe nuclear accident; b) security and the risk that a terrorist or non-state actor might steal nuclear materials; and c) safeguards and the risk that nuclear programs might be used to develop weapons. Safety, security, and safeguards are closely interconnected, but often evaluated as distinct elements. Moreover, those involved in overseeing and evaluating safety risks often have little training or understanding of security, and vice versa.

This project proposes an integrative approach to safety, security, and safeguards by developing the idea of nuclear culture, and the way different countries handle these risks and approach international standards and norms for the management of nuclear energy. Through publications, curricular development, programming, and pursuit of external grants, the project aims to bridge gaps between policy-makers and nuclear scientists and engineers, and between those involved in safety versus security and safeguards, to better evaluate risk and its manifestations.

Planning Grants

College of Architecture and Urban Studies
Jim Bohland (Global Forum on Urban & Regional Resilience)
Jennifer Lawrence (Global Forum on Urban & Regional Resilience)
CL Bohannon (Landscape Architecture Program/School of Architecture & Design)
Rachel Weaver (School of Visual Arts)

College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences
Katrina Powell (English/Center for Rhetoric in Society) *
Katherine Randall (English/Center for Rhetoric in Society)
Ren Harman, (English/VT Stories)
Brett Shadle (History)
Laura McCarter (Political Science)
Tarryn Abrahams (Science & Technology in Society)
Rebecca Hester (Science & Technology in Society)

Jon Catherwood-Ginn (Moss Arts Center)
Khaled Hassouna (Office of International Research, Education & Development)

* Team Leader

Although “big data” and data analytics have gained increasing importance in improving public policy, narratives, stories and face-to-face learning also can be critical elements of policy formation at the urban and community scale. This project seeks to understand community integration and policy implications through community stories for persons seeking refuge. Researchers will collaborate with local refugee organizations in southwest Virginia to provide educational and community building activities. The overall project has four phases: 1) training undergraduates in oral history methodology; 2) planning and implementing community activities and undergraduate research; 3) conducting data analysis and developing policy briefs and assessments for partners organizations as well as developing strategies to improve the integration of oral histories and public art into the formal policy process; and 4) drafting an external funding proposal. Specific planning objectives include establishing an Undergraduate Summer Research Program through Virginia Tech (VT) Stories and developing a proposal for external funding to extend the project. Students in the Summer Research Program will collect, analyze and communicate oral and written histories of displaced persons in the New River Valley of southwest Virginia for the purpose of policy interventions. In addition, project faculty will identify external funding opportunities to support a proposal that draws together elements from oral histories, displaced populations and urban policy change.

College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences
John Tedesco (Communication)

College of Natural Resources and Environment
Marc J. Stern (Forest Resources & Environmental Conservation) *
R. Bruce Hull (Forest Resources & Environmental Conservation)

College of Science
Danny Axsom (Psychology)

* Team Leader

The worsening paralysis and polarization of political discourse demands a response from institutions of research and higher education. The goal of this project is to build capacity to help improve civil discourse around heated public policy issues. We will conduct experimental research to engage people in open‐minded processing of environmental messaging. Moral Foundations Theory (Haidt, 2012) and Self‐Affirmation Theory (Cohen & Sherman, 2014) hold tremendous potential that has yet to be tested in combination in the policy arena. We have developed specific interventions based on both theories together that we hypothesize will enable stakeholders to process information in a more open‐minded and less biased manner. We will implement an online survey that will expose people along the entire political spectrum to different combinations of our interventions and assess how participants process subsequent messages about environmental policy. The results may reveal specific techniques that enable people to more calmly and rationally process counter‐attitudinal messages that would normally provoke a hostile or defensive response (known as identity‐protective reasoning), which precludes the opportunity for productive learning and deliberation on the merits of the arguments. The research program could ultimately extend to implications for civil discourse training in diverse educational settings. Project outcomes will include completed analysis of our first survey experiment, design and implementation of the survey with the broad spectrum of Americans and a draft manuscript describing study findings.

College of Science
Adam Dominiak (Economics)
Sudipta Sarangi (Economics)

College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences
Michael Moehler (Philosophy)
Thomas Rowe (Philosophy) *

* Team Leader

Policy makers are often called upon to make significant decisions regarding issues like health care and national security under severe uncertainty about how their decisions will affect specific members of society and society as a whole. This research project will empirically investigate how individuals and collective agents, such as policy makers, make ethical decisions under conditions of ambiguity. In the context of policy-making, ambiguity refers to the situation in which decision-makers do not know the probabilities associated with potential policy outcomes. The interdisciplinary research team combines expertise in economic methodology, decision-making under uncertainty and behavioral economics with ethical theory and rational choice theory. Researchers will conduct an experiment in the Virginia Tech Economics Laboratory to establish how individuals act in scenarios where there is a lack of probabilistic information as well as how they react to the fairness of different alternatives. Outcomes of the planning grant will include completion of the experiment, drafting a paper outlining the methods, results and impact of the experiment and developing transdisciplinary research expertise related to public policy. 

College of Agriculture and Life Sciences
Susan Chen (Agricultural & Applied Economics)

College of Architecture and Urban Studies
Max Stephenson (School of Public & International Affairs)

College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences
Nancy Brossoie (Center for Gerontology)
Eunju Hwang (Apparel, Housing & Resource Management) *

* Team Leader

The World Health Organization’s Age Friendly Initiative’s (AFI) age-friendly communities are committed to developing the core infrastructure needed to support physical, social, and economic environments that promote quality of life. Over 500 communities worldwide, including 194 U.S. cities have adopted the AFI because the numbers of older adults in their populations are rapidly rising. Preliminary efforts towards policy transformation and developing strategies for change have occurred in large urban areas but are not aligned with the needs and infrastructure found in rural American communities. The goals of this project are to develop a process for evaluating a rural community’s readiness to engage in the AFI and identify tools to measure health outcomes in rural communities. We will build research capacity to address the policy and health impacts of the AFI in rural Virginia. Building on the synergetic strengths of our transdisciplinary research team, we will conduct user-driven research, linking community policy and practice with residents and supporting older adults’ ability to remain in their own communities. Outcomes of the project will be the development of two brown bag seminars for the Virginia Tech community and an assessment matrix for AFI communities.

Policy Fellow & Teams

College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences
+Policy Fellow: Nicholas Goedert (Political Science)

Pamplin College of Business
Team Co-Leader: Laurel Travis (Business Information Technology)*

College of Natural Resources and Environment
Team Co-Leader: Peter Sforza (Center for Geospatial Information Technology)*
Matthew Pierson (Center for Geospatial Information Technology)

College of Engineering
Robert Hildebrand (Grado Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering)

* Team Co-Leader

The redistricting of state legislative seats and seats in the U.S. House of Representatives is required every ten years following the national census. Partisan gerrymandering, or the deliberate drawing of district lines to favor one party, has been a controversial practice in the United States since its inception, but has recently received heightened attention due to exceptionally effective gerrymanders by Republicans following the 2010 census and a series of court cases addressed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018. These cases and the subsequent court decisions propose many competing and sometimes conflicting metrics for the evaluation of bias in maps, with no definitive resolution on a single preferred legal or empirical standard. Racial gerrymandering, the drawing of districts to exclude or facilitate the representation of racial or ethnic minorities, has also been the subject of a great deal of litigation under the Voting Rights Act since the 1980s. All congressional and legislative districts across the country will be redrawn following the next national census in 2020. A handful of applications exist for the drawing of district maps, but these fall short in terms of their accessibility to the public and their flexibility and power to incorporate the multitude of metrics involved. The primary goal of the RAVT team is the development of an open-source redistricting application that will be available to the public on a web-based platform. The policy fellow will contribute expertise in gerrymandering litigation, legislative procedure, and scholarship on the impact of gerrymandering. The innovations in this application will involve the evaluation of maps under an array of legal, electoral, and demographic metrics developed based on the expertise of Virginia Tech Political Science faculty, and the machine-assisted aiding of drawing maps to fit incomplete user specifications based on algorithms created by Virginia Tech Engineering and Center for Geospatial Information Technology faculty. The application will aid in the policy objective of drawing fair and representative legislative districts by allowing users to specify broad but incomplete policy objectives and assisting them in creating maps optimized to those objectives. Additionally, the application will allow users to easily evaluate competing maps based on user-defined goals and specifications and investigate how changes to existing maps will alter the substance of their representation.  In addition to this primary project, the policy fellow will also lead the coordination of a monthly seminar series for the 2019-2020 academic year and a mini-conference on redistricting at Virginia Tech.

College of Architecture and Urban Studies
+Policy Fellow: Margaret Cowell (School of Public and International Affairs, Urban Affairs and Planning)

Virginia Tech Office of Economic Development
John Provo
Scott Tate
Albert Alwang

Virginia Cooperative Extension
Conaway Haskins (Economic Development)

During the spring of 2017, core staff and faculty from Virginia Tech’s Office of Economic Development (OED), Cooperative Extension, and the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) launched an interdisciplinary initiative called Vibrant Virginia. The ongoing initiative includes coordinated applied research, technical, and policy assistance projects, opportunities for experiential learning and engaged scholarship, and high-profile regional engagement activities. Vibrant Virginia engages and supports university faculty and external stakeholders in exploring urban and rural Virginia, looking at connections and disconnects, documenting similarities and differences, all with an eye to highlighting opportunities for community stakeholders from all sectors (government, education, industry, non-profit) to address regional challenges. Phase 1 of the initiative includes regional showcases, campus conversations, and seed funding. As the research team enters the second phase of the Vibrant Virginia initiative, the Phase 1 elements will be used to leverage ongoing conversations, establish new connections, and reach other geographies across the Commonwealth. The policy fellow for this project 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. The bulk of the policy fellow’s time will be dedicated to engaging with the ideas being presented in the regional showcases and campus conversations, soliciting written contributions for an edited book that will reflect the work of Vibrant Virginia, and assisting in the translation of results from projects that received seed funding. The policy fellow will lead these efforts with planned deliverables including a combination of journal articles, Op-Eds, policy reports to state and local governments, web-based products, and an edited book manuscript. In addition to integrating findings from seed projects, the campus conversations and regional showcases, the edited book will also solicit contributions from other Virginia colleges, universities, or related institutions engaged in similar types of scholarship. Potential audiences for this work include economic and community development stakeholders at the state and local levels, public officials with the capacity to shape economic and community development outcomes across the Commonwealth, and members of the general public who have concerns about their communities. All contributions shall examine geographic divisions in Virginia in order to uncover opportunities, challenges, and interdependencies. Collectively, the book will work to propose a series of synergistic policy interventions to move Virginia forward.

College of Science
+Policy Fellow: Suqin Ge (Economics)

College of Engineering
Divya Srinivasan (Industrial and Systems Engineering)
Nathan Lau (Industrial and Systems Engineering)
Alexander Leonessa (Mechanical Engineering)
Maury Nussbaum (Industrial and Systems Engineering)
Alan Asbeck (Mechanical Engineering)
Wallace Santos Lages (Computer Science)
Sunwook Kim (Industrial and Systems Engineering)

External Partners
Norah Dunbar (Communication, University of California Santa Barbara)
Rupa Valdez (Public Health Sciences, University of Virginia)
SARCOS Robotics

New technologies such as robotics and artificial intelligence are poised to reshape the future landscape of jobs and work. With the growing skills gap in manufacturing, one of the most critical needs limiting the viability and success of industrial operations is improving productivity while concurrently ensuring worker safety & wellbeing. Powered, full-body exoskeletons have the potential to augment human physical capacity, thereby increasing productivity and lowering injury risks, while also preserving human skill for operating in dynamic, unstructured environments. Exoskeletons also have the potential to equalize job opportunities, by allowing diverse populations to enter and stay employed in physically demanding jobs that are otherwise inaccessible. The research team will develop an intelligent cognitive assistant embodied on whole-body exoskeletons to augment human performance. This cognitive assistant will improve a user’s mental model of exoskeleton capabilities and increase situational awareness, thereby enabling users to formulate new work strategies only affordable by the newly extended physical capabilities. This research will substantially advance the knowledge and state-of-the-art in exoskeleton control, human-robot cooperation, human factors, and augmented reality systems. Project assessments of learning and adaptation across a diverse range of workers are key to making designs more inclusive and effective, and to elucidating the effects of exoskeleton technologies on workforce diversification. The policy fellow will actively engage in research associated with examining the relationship between advancing technology and productivity, jobs, human capital and skill development and policy. This research will generate the first empirical models of the effects of augmentation on worker productivity and well-being, industry profits, and the labor market in general. By understanding the ramifications of this new technology for workforce diversification and labor market outcomes, this research will facilitate technology design choices within the broader socioeconomic impact.