Consequences for drunk driving, social media law making and the impact of frac sand mining are issues for civic leaders in southwestern Wisconsin. Through a new UW-La Crosse research initiative, they’ll soon be on the minds of UW-L student researchers.

A group of six faculty members formed the UW-L Policy Research Network this fall to help UW-L students and faculty find, research and prepare unbiased reports for regional civic leaders to aid them in making the best policy decisions for their constituents.

“It boils down to living the Wisconsin Idea, which means that the university system in Wisconsin is not just confined to the campus, but the entire state,” explains Jeremy Arney, UW-L assistant professor of political science and member of the Policy Research Network. “Research should contribute to making Wisconsin a better place.”

The Policy Research Network asked area civic leaders for topics they were interested in learning more about. A total of 32 topics have so far been collected to potentially become future independent study subjects or course-embedded research projects for UW-L students.

Arney has already launched a pilot class to take on the Policy Research Network generated topics. His students were given the option of choosing one of the policy topics from the list generated by area legislators. Alternatively, they could choose a subject from selected journal articles or come up with their own topic. Students were asked to review literature and/or media coverage on the policy. Then they write a policy memo summarizing it and offer suggestions backed by their research for how the legislator may want to act.

The network allows students from various disciplines to contribute research on the same issue, providing a well-rounded view of the issue from biological, economic and social angles. The Policy Research Network members review drafts of the policy reports and provide constructive feedback. They then hand over the professional, vetted, unbiased reports to civic leaders.

The project allows students a real-world research opportunity and the opportunity to publicize their findings through formal reports and undergraduate research presentations. Arney’s independent study student Nick Gorman is already involved in policy-related research. Since age 16, Gorman has worked for senator Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center. His research investigates how effective professional staffers are. It’s a follow-up study on one done about 40 years ago and will help people understand how government functions, he says.

“You can’t make something work when you don’t know how it works,” he says. “It never hurts to know too much.”

Scott Cooper, UW-L biology professor and director of Undergraduate Research and Creativity, says he likes that the topics on the Policy Research Network list are diverse, ranging from the environment to public health to economics.

“This diversity allows us to involve as many students as possible on these projects and fosters interdisciplinary collaborations,” he says.

The Research Policy Network would like to recruit additional faculty who would be interested in adding a research project involving the topics to their spring syllabus. The topics could be used for a traditional undergraduate research project with a faculty mentor or a course-embedded research project to turn over to an entire class.

“We are here not just to give people jobs, but to help them become public servants,” says Arney.

two men pose with Governor Scott Walker and former Wisconsin Senator Dale Schultz

From left, Gov. Scott Walker, UW-L student Nick Gorman, Sen. Dale Schultz, and Gorman’s colleague Sanchit Mulmuley.