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Tara Grillos: Using research to help solve important collective problems


Spring 2019 | By Staff. Photo by Submitted photo.


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Assistant Professor of Political Science Tara Grillos

As Tara Grillos puts it, “Ideally all research is eventually disseminated in a way that makes it easy for policy-makers to put the lessons into practice.”

Grillos’ research on issues like sustainability and participation in Latin America, East Africa, and Southeast Asia has identified effective – and ineffective – processes in the communities she has studied, with the goal of pinpointing viable solutions to their problems.

In this Q&A with THiNK Magazine, the Assistant Professor of Political Science and member of the Building Sustainable Communities cluster shares some of her research findings and discusses her environmental policy teaching at Purdue:

Q: What do you view as your mission as a researcher?

A: I think the goal of all research should be simply to learn something useful to society. Of course, that doesn’t mean that you are likely to resolve any critical issue with a single research study. But hopefully when you put an entire body of work together, with different researchers approaching the question from different angles, a path forward starts to emerge that helps us to solve important collective problems. I like to think that I am contributing to that larger body of usable knowledge.

Q: Why did you decide to specialize in participatory processes and sustainable development? Did your post-college experience in the Peace Corps influence the direction of your academic pursuits?

A: Absolutely! During college, I was mainly interested in inequality and economic development. I grew up in New York City, where social justice issues were salient to me, but the natural environment felt distant from my daily life. It was only during my Peace Corps service that I came to see how inextricable environmental problems are from development and inequality.

In Honduras, I lived in a city about the size of Lafayette, but I worked with rural communities in the surrounding areas — they depended directly on the land for their livelihood, and deforestation threatened their water source.

At the time, “participation” was a prominent buzzword in the international development community. But what people called “participation” ranged from requiring manual labor from beneficiaries to consulting them on every decision related to the project with little regard for the opportunity cost of their time. I saw that there were a lot of well-intentioned programs that were, at best, ineffectual, and at worst, actually exacerbating the problem they aimed to solve.

I went to grad school mainly to try to understand how to make sustainable development work better. It turned out that the answers to some of my questions didn’t exist yet, and so I became a researcher in an effort to help discover those answers.

Q: You recently co-published an article about how establishing decision-making groups with gender quotas that are more representative of the population can make policy interventions more effective. What did your research group find? And how should we interpret the results?

A: Our research group created a game that simulates forest conservation and then asked real-life forest users in developing countries to play it. A common intervention in developing countries is to provide financial incentives for forest conservation, and our game simulates that too.

We found that when groups were required to have a minimum of 50% women, the incentive was more effective at increasing conservation, and the groups with more women also shared the incentive more equally between the group members.

If people behave the same way in real life as they do in the game, then this is some fairly strong evidence that increasing gender equity in decision-making could also lead to better and more equitable environmental outcomes.

Q: Regarding your recent research involving participation in group decision-making, how did participants’ involvement affect their investment in the outcomes?

A: I ran an experiment in Kenya which randomly varied the way that a collective decision was made. One way to make group decisions is through deliberative discussion -- group members try to persuade each other of a certain point of view by justifying their preference with reasons that should appeal to others.

I found that the groups that used deliberation made better decisions — by which I mean they made the choice that led to better outcomes for the group as a whole. I also found that those people who were persuaded by others’ arguments also put more work into creating an outcome for the benefit of the group.

In other words, deliberation helped change people’s minds, and those who changed their minds also changed their behavior. This line of research could help us to understand when and how more intensive forms of participation are worth the time investment.

Q: Can you describe how your research findings can be applied to improve the situations you study?

A: Ideally all research is eventually disseminated in a way that makes it easy for policy-makers to put the lessons into practice – but realistically that can sometimes take a long time. For that reason, I really enjoy conducting research through direct partnerships with grassroots NGOs, because there is an opportunity for my research to get immediately put into action.

When I work on a program evaluation, the primary output of my research is to identify whether something is working or not. If something is working well, the organization can use that information to scale up the program and reach more people with it. If it is not working, then the organization can try to fix it so it’s more effective, or it can put its resources towards other things with a bigger payoff to its beneficiaries.  

Q: What research areas are you interested in pursuing next?

A: Some of my upcoming projects involve the governance of rural water councils in Honduras and the formalization of forest user groups in Nepal. In general, I want to understand how we can support successful local governance of natural resources.

Q: What are the objectives of the environmental policy course (Introduction to Environmental Policy) you teach here at Purdue?

A: There is a lot of complexity in real world policy-making: competing values and beliefs, limited attention spans, overlapping jurisdictions, uncertainty over outcomes, unintended consequences. … There are just so many obstacles to making change through policy, and yet history provides us with some prominent success stories.

In the course (POL 223), we try to learn from those examples. I aim to equip my students with some frameworks and tools that they can use to identify similarities across cases and make sense of a multi-faceted topic -- but I also want them to walk away with an appreciation for the complexity, and a wariness of how overly simplistic models can lead would-be policy-makers astray.

Q: Can you share a story from your teaching experience that is especially meaningful for you?  

A: This year, one of my students reached out after the course because he was working with an environmental group, trying to minimize the impact of a proposed factory construction. Another former student contacted me to say that she is now running for local government. That’s the most meaningful aspect of teaching for me: maintaining a connection with students beyond the limits of the course itself and seeing all of the different ways they are making their impact on the world, using some of the tools they gained here at Purdue!