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DIW Office Connects Duke Experts to Washington

DC office sponsors timely meetings on policy issues with legislators, staff


After a briefing on the Duke Child Mental Health Initiative, Victoria Bright (T ’10), legislative correspondent for Rep. Nancy Pelosi, tries out expression recognition software designed by Duke experts to detect signs of autism.

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What do unconventional terrorist threats and elementary and secondary education reform have in common?   

Each are areas of expertise that Duke faculty shared with the Washington policy world last week, via conference calls arranged by staff at Duke in Washington, (DIW) the university’s outreach center in Washington, DC.

On Tuesday, David Schanzer, associate professor of public policy and director of the Triangle Center for Terrorism and Homeland Security, and Jayne Huckerby, associate clinical professor at Duke Law, spoke to a group of congressional staff and alumni about their respective research into preventing violent radicalization and the role women play in terrorism. The call took place on the heels of a White House summit on countering violent extremism, in which Huckerby participated.

The next day, congressional education aides, agency representatives and a handful of alumni working in education policy heard about issues related to No Child Left Behind reform efforts that are moving through the House and Senate.  Professors Ken Dodge, director of the Center for Child and Family Policy at Sanford, and Helen “Sunny” Ladd, professor of public policy and economics, contributed their research on early childhood education, low-income schools and testing to the curriculum.

These “rapid response policy calls” are the latest examples of efforts by Duke in Washington (DIW) staff to connect Duke scholarship and people to policymakers and other leaders in Washington.

“Duke is home to expertise in just about any discipline you can think of.  And people in DC are working to solve just about any problem you can think of,” said Landy Elliott, director of Duke in Washington. 

“Our goal is to get Duke’s evidence-based scholarship in the hands of those who have to make tough policy decisions.  To give policymakers the information and background that will help them to make the best-informed decisions possible.”

Below: A slideshow of several 2014 highlights of faculty events coordinated with the Duke In Washington office.

Sometimes this takes the form of informal conversations with a group of congressional staffers or think tank scholars. In one example, Duke Law Professor Neil Siegel was in Washington during the Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, a case on employers’ religious objections to federal law. A former Hill staffer himself, Siegel met with a group of congressional aides over coffee to answer general background questions on the impact of and potential legislative responses to the decision.

Other contacts with policymakers are more deliberate. Fuqua’s David Ridley wanted to pitch specific ideas for updating the priority review voucher, a policy that encourages pharmaceutical companies to develop drugs for rare diseases. DIW public relations specialist Alyssa Dack was able to arrange meetings with the congressional staff contacts who would be most engaged on the topic.

After several rounds of meetings, Ridley’s proposals were included when Congress acted to revise the existing law.

“The connections Duke in Washington made were especially helpful in getting the changes we wanted,” said Ridley, faculty director of Fuqua’s Health Sector Management program. “I was delighted when President Obama signed the changes into law in December.”

“Professor Ridley’s experience was a bit of a ‘perfect world’ scenario,” Elliott said. “But it’s just as much of a win for us when we are able to demonstrate that Duke faculty and staff are great resources for people in DC, resources that can help refine understanding of complicated problems.”

For example, in December, DIW teamed up with the Office of Government Relations and the Office of Federal Relations to highlight the Duke Children’s Mental Health Initiative, a multidisciplinary effort to revolutionize the way that early childhood mental health disorders - like autism  - are diagnosed and, ultimately, treated.

More than 60 representatives from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, House and Senate offices, think tanks, and advocacy groups gathered in the Capitol Visitors Center to hear Duke experts discuss their groundbreaking work.

Robert Calderbank, director of the Information Initiative at Duke and moderator of the Capitol Hill briefing, says that Duke in Washington’s efforts bring the innovative work of Duke straight to the doorstep of the federal research community that supports it.

“When a grand challenge requires engineering and medicine to join forces, Duke is the place where solutions are born, and Duke in Washington is the place where the client gets to meet our solutions,” Calderbank said.

With a new Congress, Dack says she sees even greater opportunities for connecting Duke scholars to policymakers. 

“Many of these freshmen Members of Congress have recently hired staff who may be new to a particular issue or even new to Washington.  What a great opportunity to have Duke faculty be the ones who help them figure things out.”

Below: Neil Siegel discusses the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision with staff representatives from congressional offices.