Dr. Varun Rai, Associate Professor at the Lydon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, was honored with the David N. Kershaw Award this afternoon at the 2016 APPAM Fall Research Conference. The Kershaw Award is given to individuals under the age of 40 who have made significant contributions to the fields of public policy analysis and management. The award is named after David Kershaw, the first president of Mathematica Policy Research, who died of cancer at age 37.
The current president of Mathematica Policy Research, Dr. Paul Decker, introduced Dr. Rai and provided the audience with an overview of some of Dr. Rai’s achievements thus far in his career. He mentioned that in Dr. Rai’s six years at the LBJ School, he has published 23 peer-reviewed journal articles and 4 book chapters. In addition, he has done work outside of the academy, with people from private industry and the nonprofit sector. Dr. Rai’s research focuses on the factors that influence the diffusion of clean energy technology.
Dr. Rai stated that it was a “great honor and humbling experience to have” to be chosen as a recipient of the Kershaw Award. His lecture, titled, “Bridging Boundaries: Opportunities and Challenges in Interdisciplinary Research,” provided insight on his prior experience conducting interdisciplinary research, and five themes that he viewed as important to doing this type of research. He began with some observations: that interdisciplinary research is hard (but refreshing!), that it takes more time and effort on the part of individual researchers, and that the payoffs are risky and farther off, but they are unparalleled.
The five themes that Dr. Rai described as critical to interdisciplinary research were: Invariance, Navigability, Teamwork, Environment, and Risk-taking (or the acronym INTER, from the beginning of the word INTERdisciplinary). He gave examples from some of his research projects for each of these themes, beginning with invariance. He quoted Herbert Simon, the Nobel Prize laureate, who said that “the fundamental goal of science is to find invariants,” or underlying principles or patterns. Dr. Rai stated that this idea, of doing high-quality research to uncover principles that can inform policy and planning, is the foundation of interdisciplinary research. He then went on to give an example of a research project that participated in as part of an interdisciplinary team, where they found clustering the adoption of clean technology, which had direct implications for policymaking.
From there, he provided more detail about each of the other four themes. The final theme, risk-taking, ended the lecture on an inspiring note. Dr. Rai emphasized the importance of taking risks, in order to do research that reaches broader audiences and translates into practice. The lecture was followed by with a question and answer session, and ended with a standing ovation from the audience.