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Joint-PhD Paul Atwell receives first Peter Eckstein Prize

May 2, 2019

Paul Atwell, a joint-PhD student in public policy and political science, along with his microeconomist co-authors Alex Armand and Joseph Gomes from the University of Navarra in Spain, are the inaugural winners of the Peter Eckstein Prize for Interdisciplinary Research. The award celebrates the value of interdisciplinary research, which is critical in public policy.

The paper, titled The Reach of Radio: Ending Civil Conflict through Rebel Demobilization, drew upon political science theory and prior research in the areas of civil conflict and political communication/media studies, and also theory/research in regard to the role of economic shocks in civil conflicts, to demonstrate the role of FM radio communications in the success of counter-insurgency policies.

Reflecting on the work, Atwell wrote “the benefits of working across disciplines on this project continue to strengthen our findings as we make the final adjustments to the paper. It's been a great lesson to have early in my career as an academic.”

Atwell et al. plan to submit the manuscript for publication.

From the abstract: This paper examines the role of FM radio in mitigating and ending violent conflict. We collect original data on radio broadcasts encouraging defections during the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) insurgency, one of Africa’s longest running conflicts. We provide the first quantitative evaluation of an active counter insurgency policy. Exploiting random topography-driven variation in radio coverage along with panel variation at the grid-cell level we identify the causal effect of messaging on violence. Broadcasting defection messages reduce fatalities, violence against civilians and clashes with security forces. These reductions are propelled by an increase in defections. In response to manpower losses, the LRA resorts to increased looting for survival. Income shocks measured by exogenous movements in commodity prices have opposing effects on both the conflict and the effectiveness of messaging. Conflict-enhancing (-reducing) commodity price shocks weaken (strengthen) the pacifying effects of defection messaging. This highlights the role of economic incentives in the success of counter-insurgency policies.

Two papers also received honorable mentions: “Lights and Siren:” 911 Operators and the Construction of High-Priority Incidents by Jessica Gillooly, a PhD student in Public Policy and Sociology, and Speaking their Mind: Populist Style and Antagonistic Messaging in the Tweets of Donald Trump, Narendra Modi, Nigel Farage, and Geert Wilders by A’ndre Gonawela, B.A. senior at Ford School with co-authors from the University of Michigan and Leiden University, the Netherlands.

Ford School students at all degree levels submitted work for consideration. A committee of four faculty reviewed 33 entries and assessed each on the strength of the multi- or interdisciplinary approach to the work, the quality of the work, and its potential for impact.

Paul Atwell is a PhD student in political science and public policy at the University of Michigan. He received a BS in political science with distinction from the University of Wisconsin - Madison with a certificate in African studies. He has previously participated in a number of research projects and policy evaluations related to democratic and conflict outcomes in Africa and Latin America while working at the University of Navarra in Spain. As student of Comparative Politics at UM, Paul is researching themes in political communication and behavior, armed conflict, and participation-oriented development policy. He is interested in geospatial, experimental, and network methodologies in studying these themes.

The Peter Eckstein Prize for Interdisciplinary Research and Policy Analysis is awarded to a Ford School student or group of students whose work exhibits the use of theories, concepts, frameworks, research methods or other tools from two or more disciplines in researching, analyzing, or furthering understanding of a topic, issue or debate related to public policy, domestic or international. The prize was established in 2019 by a gift from Peter Eckstein, who was a student of both economics and social sciences, and throughout his career saw the value in combining the two fields to explain economic phenomena.