Boise State University

At Idaho colleges, we help state and local policymakers chart right courses

IPI Research Director Vanessa Fry presents findings on the impact of homelessness on youth at the Ada County Courthouse.
IPI Research Director Vanessa Fry presents findings on the impact of homelessness on youth at the Ada County Courthouse. Boise State University

Idaho’s universities have long played a vital public affairs role in the state. Our universities not only produce the leaders, thinkers and innovators who will inherit our civic sphere, our researchers also work with these capable civil servants to craft smart policy in our local communities and in the Legislature.

At Boise State University, we take this pubic role especially to heart. That is because, among many other important responsibilities, Boise State has been entrusted by the Idaho State Board of Education with leading the public affairs mission in Idaho. To honor that mission, Boise State created the School of Public Service several years ago – a new academic institution that now encompasses such diverse fields as public policy and political science; global and environmental studies; and community development and criminal justice.

The school has been an enormous success, in large part because we have had the good fortune of launching this new school in partnership with faculty who have long and impressive track records of research and scholarship, including John Freemuth, one of the nation’s premier public lands experts and executive director of the Cecil D. Andrus Center for Public Policy; and public policy professor Jen Schneider, director of the public policy Ph.D. program, which is one of only two social science doctoral programs in the state.

Since its launch, the School of Public Service has attracted world-class thinkers and researchers such as Dean Corey Cook, a city governance expert who came to us from the University of San Francisco’s Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good; and former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Steven Feldstein, now the Frank and Bethine Church Chair of Public Affairs.

The School of Public Service and these distinguished faculty members serve as a resource for policymakers, assisting them in making informed decisions. At the behest of public officials, our faculty members have examined how drug courts affect recidivism in counties throughout Idaho, studied the impacts of chronic homelessness in Ada County, and created a statewide lead poisoning index for children for the Department of Health and Welfare, among other projects.

In addition, our annual statewide survey and Treasure Valley survey – both conducted by the school’s Idaho Policy Institute – are routinely cited by policy makers when considering new legislation. For instance, public transportation proved to be an important issue for residents in the Treasure Valley this year; when residents were asked what governments should be spending money on, public transportation came in as the No. 1 priority.

Our undergraduate and graduate researchers also are working in the cutting-edge field of big data extrapolation and the ethical questions that surround it. Their research could have enormous implications – for instance, by learning to effectively use and interpret big data, they could one day help improve response times for emergency responders.

But Boise State is far from the only university actively engaging with and shaping Idaho’s public policy. Each year, the University of Idaho’s James A. and Louise McClure Center for Public Policy Research releases several Idaho at a Glance policy briefs – short and powerful reports that analyze the demographic, social and economic impacts of select Idaho subcultures. Led by director Katherine Himes, the center’s recent policy briefs include analysis on Idaho’s public libraries, the life choices of Idaho senior high school students and Idaho’s refugee population, to name a few. The center also produces longer research reports that delve into select topic – like the community impacts of dairy workers – in great detail.

With as much behind-the-scenes work as Idaho academics do on public policy research, there are also individuals who have made it their priority to keep Idahoans up to speed on what can seem like the confusing, byzantine process of getting legislation crafted, introduced, and passed at the local and state level. For instance, College of Idaho political economy professor Jasper LiCalzi acts as the political analyst for KIVI Today’s Channel Six. He has devoted much of his career and research on interest groups in Idaho and the Idaho state legislature. He has a forthcoming book titled “Idaho Politics and Government: Culture Clash and Conflicting Values in the Gem State,” published by University of Nebraska Press, which examines governmental and political institutions through the prism of political culture.

And of course, many academics contribute to Idaho’s Energy Policy Research Institute, which is part of the Center for Advanced Energy Studies (CAES) and conducts research-directed energy policy. This important work includes the citing of transmission lines and the economics of small modular reactors. The center is led by Boise State on behalf of CAES partners – the Idaho National Laboratory, University of Wyoming, Idaho State University and the University of Idaho.

It cannot be said enough: Successful research is collaborative. Through projects that draw in both policymakers and students from all fields, Idaho’s universities embody this spirit of collaboration. By bridging disciplines and creating more opportunities to conduct public research and share it with our state’s leadership and voters, we are not only enhancing the education of students, we are activating and educating Idaho’s constituents. The messy, exhilarating task of crafting policy shouldn’t be conducted in the dark. Through engaging, relevant public research, we hope to encourage students, civil servants and the voters that elect them to them to apply their knowledge and skills to the critical challenges facing our state in ways that positively impact the lives of all Idahoans.

Mark Rudin is vice president for research and economic development at Boise State, where he oversees the Office of Sponsored Programs, the Office of Research Compliance, and other administrative and technical offices.