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William & Mary helps launch State Department's Diplomacy Lab

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    Conference in  Members of the PIPS team talk via video conference with their State Department resources.  Photo by Pricilla Caldwell
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William & Mary is one of just two universities piloting a new program for the U.S. State Department that will help policy makers address pressing world issues.

Under the Diplomacy Lab program, faculty and student teams collaborate to tackle complex, real-world, diplomatic challenges. The University of Virginia is hosting the other pilot programs.

Diplomacy Lab harnesses the research capabilities, intellectual capital and creativity of both faculty and students.

“William and Mary has been a great partner throughout the planning and execution of the lab, and frankly the students’ new State Department colleagues have been calling our office singing their praises,” said Tomicah Tillemann, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s senior adviser for civil society and emerging democracies.

Three William & Mary professors and a half-dozen students have projects underway this fall.  

“The Diplomacy Lab is a perfect example of how W&M strives to bring our students directly into contact with real-world global policy issues, and with the policymakers who are now wrestling with them,” said Steve Hanson, vice provost for international affairs.

The William & Mary teams are looking into policy issues pertaining to LGBT issues in Islam and prisons and their role in insurgencies.

After conducting basic research on scholarly studies of diverse sexualities in Islamic cultures, one William & Mary team undertook independent research online, identifying LGBTQ organizations, web sites, blogs, and social media.  Their project, “Mapping and Analysis of Pro-LGBT Work by Religious Organizations,” focuses specifically on Muslim communities in South and Central Asia.  They will present their findings in a policy brief supported by a white paper summarizing their findings, in early 2014.  

“The students who undertook this project are hoping to make their careers in government service, and so enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to get OJT.  The project complements their academic work and helps them focus their career goals,” said Tamara Sonn, Keenan Professor of Humanities and the faculty advisor to the Islam project.  

Utilizing the base of William & Mary’s Project on International Peace and Security (PIPS), the insurgencies project is examining how conditions in prisons may contribute to the success or failure of insurgencies. Students are conducting a cross-national study that involves cases, such as Peru, Northern Ireland and Iraq.  

“We founded PIPS on the belief that the creativity, energy, and ability of undergraduates was an untapped national resource that could make a meaningful contribution to addressing international challenges,” said Amy Oakes, associate professor of government and co-director of PIPS.  “Diplomacy Lab is a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate how undergraduate research can contribute to the policy making community.”

Research began at the start of the semester and the teams are putting the final touches on their proposals in coming weeks.  Authors of the best proposals may be invited to DC to personally present their proposals.

Ultimately, the State Department hopes to see universities across the nation involved.

“Diplomacy Lab fits perfectly with William and Mary’s commitment to faculty-student research and highlight how bridging the academic and policy communities can enrich student education and benefit the nation,” said Dennis Smith, professor of government and co-director of the PIPS project.  “Programs such as Diplomacy Lab, The Project on International Peace and Security, and W&M’s Institute for the Theory and Practice of International Relations’ AidData program demonstrate the value of applying liberal arts training to tackling real world problems.”

Diplomacy Lab is an outgrowth of the Presidential Precinct, a partnership among the University of Virginia, William & Mary, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and James Madison’s Montpelier. The precinct draws on the democratic expertise of its partners to promote democracy.

“The Diplomacy Lab represents an innovative way for two great Virginia universities and the State Department to collaborate in order to open new doors for Virginia’s citizens and to produce public goods for the nation at large,” Hanson said.