Doing Research that Matters

Civil War. Radicalization. Conflict Management. Piracy.  

Students studying international relations in the Department of Political Science have the opportunity to address these critical issues facing the international community thanks to programs at the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy at UT. 

Diplomacy Lab is a partnership between the Department of State and the Baker Center. Launched in 2013, the project connects policymakers in the State Department with students and faculty experts to conduct research on a variety of topics of interest.  

Krista Wiegand with Erin Rowland, doctoral candidate in political science and Baker Center Graduate Fellow in Global Security.

Krista Wiegand with Erin Rowland, doctoral candidate in political science and Baker Center Graduate Fellow in Global Security.

“This is a great opportunity to get our graduate students really engaged not just in their own research with their heads in the sand, but to really think about outreach and public policy at the international level and to do research that matters,” says Krista Wiegand, associate professor of political science and director of the Global Security Program at the Baker Center. 

Wiegand taught the first graduate course offered through the Diplomacy Lab at UT. The State Department tasked the class with research on conflict processes and how the United States can be successful in international mediation efforts.  

“Specifically, we looked at what factors would influence the likelihood of success if the United States got involved with mediation where there is a civil war going on, such as in Syria,” Wiegand says. 

In addition to the course readings, students discussed research on proven mediation methods, reviewed policies and academic resources, and analyzed data about the success of the United States’ role in international conflict mediation. At the end of the project, the class presented their findings to State Department officials.  

“It was a great experience for the students, who are so used to being focused on just academics, to see how this actually played out in the real world,” Wiegand says. 

Through the Global Security Program, students also learn about the real-world applications of research on core problems the international community confronts. Wiegand leads the program focusing on conflict processes, which offers courses and events related to global security and foreign policy. 

Brandon PrinsBrandon Prins, professor of political science and Global Security Fellow at the Baker Center, also works on conflict processes and recently finished a Department of Defense funded initiative on maritime piracy. His new project focuses on the effectiveness of United Nations peacekeeping operations in post-conflict environments.  

“There are a number of violent civil war conflicts happening around the world,” Prins says. “In many instances, the UN is tasked with both trying to resolve the conflict and, after the parties have stopped fighting, help prevent the fighting from recurring in the future.” 

Putting peacekeepers on the ground in conflict-prone countries is one way the United Nations tries to foster peace and stabilization. Previous research showed mixed evidence about the effectiveness of using this strategy within the entire country. Prins’ research focuses on micro areas in these countries. 

“We are not just looking at whether or not violence decreases overall,” Prins says. “We want to know whether having peacekeepers in an area of a country decreases violence in that area. This will give us some idea of whether or not they actually have some effect on the ground.” 

Involving students in research on timely topics in the international community is key to the work Wiegand and Prins do at the Baker Center, whether their students go into academia or policy work.  

“As a professor, my primary objective is to train other academics to further expand the academic realm in international relations,” Wiegand says. “Given the fact there are only so many jobs in academia, however, we are seeing a growth in ‘real-world’ nonacademic career choices.” 

Prins sees his role as educating students about current critical issues so students leave UT with a better understanding of the world than when they arrived. 

“Clearly the world is increasingly globalized and connected,” Prins says. “I think it’s useful for our students to understand different countries and cultures and be confronted with different ideas. America is not the center of the world. We do not always know the best way to do something and can learn from other cultures and people about how to solve problems.”