Public Release: 

Grants kick-start novel research in humanities, arts, social sciences

University of California - Davis

Child poverty, international migration and the cultural impact of video games are among the topics of seven new interdisciplinary programs in the humanities, arts and social sciences recently announced at the University of California, Davis.

Vice Chancellor for Research Harris Lewin said that the new clusters in the Interdisciplinary Frontiers in Humanities and Arts program will receive combined funding of $3.6 million over three years. The aim is to stimulate new research and innovative ideas that can then compete for funding from external sources.

An external advisory committee of distinguished scholars recommended the seven projects (from among 30 submissions) as having the greatest potential for excellence in research and creative production, and impact on society.

These successful proposals will address such questions as:

  • Is vocational education effective at providing true economic opportunities?
  • What are the long-term effects on children in economic distress?
  • How has increased international mobility, specifically temporary migration, affected economic development, social evolution and cultural exchange?
  • How does the use of the Internet and other transformations in scholarly publishing affect the meaning of "publication" and "scholarship"?
  • Can video game technologies be produced and developed to help expand access to the arts, science, health interventions and culture?
  • What are the community narratives, practices, rituals and activity settings that activate community strength and well-being?
  • How might design be used to clarify information, enhance civic participation, and empower individuals to make informed choices?

"Interdisciplinary research teams are critical to crafting new approaches to the complex problems facing today's individuals and societies," said Lewin. "I'd like to congratulate the successful applicants, and we look forward to working with them to maximize the impacts of their research."

IFHA and Research Initiatives in Science and Engineering comprise the Interdisciplinary Frontiers Program, an effort to establish new, globally competitive, interdisciplinary research programs at UC Davis, coordinated by the Office of Research. Lewin announced the RISE awards in November.

Funding comes from indirect costs of grants awarded to UC Davis under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, or "stimulus" funds. Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi set aside the funds for reinvestment in campus research, consistent with UC Davis' goal of reaching $1 billion in sponsored research activity.

Lewin congratulated the successful teams and also acknowledged the efforts of those IFHA research clusters not funded, noting that with almost $28 million requested in the proposals submitted, only a limited number of cluster concepts could be awarded.

The successful proposals:

Vocational education and the economy -- Ann Stevens, professor and chair of economics, and director of the Center for Poverty Studies, and Michal Kurlaender, associate professor in the School of Education, lead a team that will look at vocational programs in community colleges and how such training has affected the work force.

"There has been a clear policy push in recent years to promote vocational education as a solution to the stagnant earnings of U.S. workers, with billions of federal dollars committed in the last few years," Stevens said. "Unfortunately, high-quality research on the effectiveness of these programs has been very limited.

"Our UC Davis faculty team will bring together expertise in higher education, poverty and labor markets, and begin to answer the critical questions of whether, when and for whom these programs provide true economic opportunities."

Children and poverty -- Marianne Page, professor of economics, leads this project, titled "Understanding the Long-Term Effects on Children in Economic Distress." Focusing on the recent economic downturn, researchers from the departments of Psychology, Economics and Human Ecology will focus on understanding the full range of economic crises' impacts on children. Most research today focuses on the impacts of economic downturns on adults.

"The dismal prognosis for disadvantaged children has worsened over time," Page said in the project proposal. "By some measures, inequality is nearly twice as high as it was 30 years ago."

Migration and the economy -- In "Managing Temporary Migrations: California, U.S. and the World," a team led by economics professor Giovanni Peri will analyze how increased international mobility, specifically temporary migration, has affected economic development, social evolution and cultural exchange.

"Understanding the complex and multifaceted phenomenon of international mobility and managing migrations to maximize their socioeconomic benefits for the sending and receiving countries and for the migrants themselves is one of the key challenges of the next decade facing California, the U.S. and the world," Peri said in his proposal.

Innovation in scholarly communication -- The use of the Internet and other transformations in scholarly publishing -- from peer review, to open access to data publishing and more -- vary across academic disciplines, said Mario Biagioli, professor, Science and Technology Studies (College of Letters and Science, and the School of Law). He will work with colleagues from a variety of disciplines -- from library science to the College of Biological Sciences, and more from law, English, computer science, creative writing and the Graduate School of Management -- to "think globally but act locally" in assessing the different meanings of "scholarship."

For the project, titled "Innovating the Communication of Scholarship," researchers will look at changes and challenges in the traditional system of scholarly publication and the changing meaning of "publication," whether that be on the Internet or in a hardcover book, Biagioli said.

"We do not believe that any of the different positions in each case are wrong or arbitrary, but rather that they need to be made sense of, and rendered translatable across institutional and disciplinary divides if we are to come up with a new, comprehensive system of scholarly publishing," he said in his proposal.

Gamification -- This team will carry out a cultural analysis of video game technologies. The team also intends to produce and develop game technologies that can help expand access to the arts, science, health interventions and culture.

The team comprises representatives from 11 disciplines, from geology and food science to cinema studies and anthropology. Colin Milburn, the team leader, is an associate professor of English, and holder of the Gary Snyder Endowed Chair in Science and Humanities.

"By some measures, the video game has become the most significant medium of contemporary culture," Milburn said. "Games and game technologies are now used in an immense variety of contexts beyond entertainment and artistic expression, including education, politics, business, military training, medicine and even scientific research."

Health and resilience in immigrant communities -- Nolan Zane, professor of Asian American studies and psychology, leads this group of faculty from nursing, medicine, psychology, cultural studies and the arts in an exploration of underappreciated and undervalued sources of strength and resiliency in immigrant communities. Partnering with immigrant groups in the Sacramento region, the researchers will begin by asking two questions: "How do the expressive arts activate personal strength and well-being?" and "What are the community narratives, practices, rituals and activity settings that activate community strength and well-being?"

"We recognize that immigrants can and do succeed in achieving personal health and well-being," Zane said. "Elucidating these 'hidden' sources of resiliency are essential for effective public health approaches that are truly culturally valid and meaningful."

Design in the public interest -- What does democratic design look like? That's the question to be addressed by a team of researchers led by Susan Verba, associate professor of design, and Sarah Perrault, assistant professor, University Writing Program. The team, also including faculty from the departments of Anthropology, Communication and Computer Science, the School of Education, and the Women and Gender Studies Program, will seek to create accessible, user-centered design "outcomes" that can be disseminated as open-source models and used to create graphics and communications that resonate with broad audiences.

"We are confronted daily by information, artifacts and environments that are confusing, inaccessible, even potentially dangerous," Verba said. "From public documents and graphics to entire programs and systems -- from election ballots to the voting process, from hospital signage to communication flow within and among hospital teams -- much of this confusion is the result of narrow design decisions. Given this, we want to explore how we might use design to clarify information, enhance civic participation, and empower individuals to make informed choices."


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