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Rice announces formation of Texas Policy Lab

By Elizabeth Myong     9/4/18 11:07pm

The Rice School of Social Sciences announced the opening of the Texas Policy Lab, a collaboration between Texas academics and state policymakers focused on policy research and analysis.

The initiative, announced on Aug. 30, is supported by a $6.6 million grant from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, a philanthropic organization, according to Rice News.

According to the foundation’s website, a policy lab is a place where “government officials collaborate with experienced researchers to study problems, learn about the effectiveness of existing programs and test new approaches.”

Dean of the School of Social Sciences Antonio Merlo said academics from research universities and institutions traditionally reach out to the government with their ideas. But he said the new policy lab, which will be located across the street from Greenbriar Lot, will work in reverse so that the government approaches the lab with projects.

“We wanted to create an organization, an institute which is actually there to answer the questions governmental agencies are interested in,” Merlo said.

Students and faculty at Rice will have many opportunities to work at the lab and answer policy questions, according to Merlo. For social policy analysis majors, labs and capstone projects at the policy lab will be incorporated into their degree program. He said there will also be internship opportunities available to non-majors.

Merlo also said graduate students will be able to join research groups. Additionally, he said faculty affiliates will specialize in specific areas like criminal justice, homelessness or education policy. Fellows from the Baker Institute will also have the chance to collaborate on certain research projects, according to their expertise.

Merlo said the policy lab will be designed to help policymakers make decisions and implement policies on state, county and local levels. For example, he said there is an ongoing project with the Department of Criminal Justice, which wants to lower the rate of reincarceration in the Texas prison system.

“There are many [reincarceration prevention] programs,” Merlo said. “The natural question is: which one of these policies has the biggest impact?”

When it comes to the structure of the lab, Merlo said it will shift according to the workload at any given time.

He said there will be staff who are permanently affiliated with the lab, but that research teams will be created according to demand, so there might be five to eight research groups active at one time.

Merlo said the lab will be a nonpartisan source of information.

“It is not a think tank where fellows write position papers and advocate for policies,” he said. “The lab is exactly the opposite. It’s not to promote policy or advice, just to do an assessment and be impartial and evidence-based.”

President David Leebron said the policy lab will support data-driven policy decisions in Texas.

“It strongly complements the new social policy analysis program in both undergraduate and graduate education,” Leebron said.

Michelle Welch, a research and policy expert who leads the foundation’s Policy Lab initiative, said the Texas Policy Lab will join nine other labs across the nation which are funded by the Arnold Foundation. Collectively, the labs have produced more than 150 projects, including studies on overcrowding in California jails and drop-out rates for high school students in the Colorado foster care system.

Looking ahead, Merlo said he envisions an institute that produces effective analyses of policies through collaboration between government agencies and the university.

“It will establish itself as an institution of services based on ongoing relationships, long-lasting relationships and assessment of policies,” he said. 

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