March 22, 2018

Purdue Librarians Contribute to 21st Century Grand Challenge Research

mellonlightbulbonlyPurdue University recently announced the first findings from its Resilient Communities Research Team, one of five interdisciplinary research projects funded by an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Grand Challenge Exploratory Award. The team, which included scholars from the library and multiple academic departments, came together to explore how people’s physical and social networks influence the resilience of their communities during periods of disaster recovery. They also explored the important role that humanists, social scientists, and librarians can play in tackling 21st Century Grand Challenges.

Originally issued by the White House, the 21st Century Grand Challenges are intended to spark research into “ambitious but achievable goals that harness science, technology, and innovation to solve important national or global problems.” Purdue brought together five research teams to tackle these problems under a research proposal entitled “Catalyzing the Involvement of Humanists and Social Scientists in Grand Challenge Initiatives.” These teams explored various large-scale policy problems dealing with water use, e-waste, seed technologies, sanitation, and how communities recover after natural disasters. While the teams researched vastly different topics, they were united in a commitment to working together in blended teams with a range of academic backgrounds and expertise.

This collaborative approach is initially what appealed to grant officers at the Mellon Foundation: “As ‘wicked’ or highly complicated problems, Grand Challenge questions are inherently interdisciplinary,” said Donald Waters, senior program manager at the Mellon Foundation.

Waters added, “The general public perception is that Grand Challenges are the province of interdisciplinary work among the STEM disciplines and that the problems are most susceptible to scientific study and technology applications. However, closer inspection of the problems reveals that while scientists and technologists have a lot to offer, the problems have historical, philosophical, ethical, religious, sociological, political, economic, and ethnographic dimensions. The premise that the Mellon Foundation found most attractive in the Purdue project is that these dimensions cannot be ignored and that a better approach to Grand Challenge questions would be to embrace humanists and social scientists with expertise in these areas as full collaborators and perhaps even as project leaders.”

Jim Mullins, dean of Purdue University Libraries, and his team ensured that each of the five interdisciplinary research teams brought together not only scientists, social scientists, and humanists but also librarians. These librarians are playing key roles in each project, including GIS analysis, database design, text mining, and qualitative research.


The Resilient Communities Research Team was interested in understanding how physical infrastructure and social networks both influence a community’s ability to recover in the face of disaster, and exploring policy solutions that would improve a community’s resilience and mitigate economic loss. They chose to focus their research on several towns in southern Indiana that were hit by deadly tornadoes in March 2012.

Megan Sapp Nelson is an associate professor of library science at Purdue and a member of the team. For her contribution to the project, Sapp Nelson interviewed disaster responders from organizations such as the Indiana Department of Homeland Security and Red Cross, who were involved with recovery efforts in Henryville and several other towns in southern Indiana. Using Nvivo software, she then analyzed those interviews to identify themes related to the team’s research questions around the relationships between people’s social and physical infrastructure.

Her teammates designed a survey that was sent out to households across the recovery area and used the resulting collected quantitative data to explore how a family or individual’s social networks and the damage to their physical infrastructure affected their recovery time.

They are now starting to model the quantitative and qualitative data to understand what factors most influence household and community recovery time. One interesting finding from their initial analysis is that the elderly, with weaker social networks, take longer to rebound.

Sapp Nelson expects the team will be uncovering more insights as data analysis continues. Thinking about determining factors in the project’s success, she said, “We actually spent quite a bit of time defining research methods.… No one person defined the scope and vision of the project; everyone brings some of the scope and some of the vision with them.”

The project scope was defined by a diverse team with backgrounds in science, the humanities, and the social sciences. Rosalee Clapson, a project member and head of the political science department, said, “We had to spend some time learning each other’s language, so to speak, and understanding each other’s assumptions about approaches to hypothesis testing, data analysis, and interpretation of findings. To study disaster recovery and community resilience, it is critically important to consider both physical and social factors. Having engineers, political scientists, a philosopher, a library scientist, and a communication scholar on the team provides an incredible opportunity to understand the problem and make policy recommendations to help communities prepare for disasters.”

Mullins, who also served as principal investigator for the grant, set the expectation that a librarian would play an essential role as both researcher and facilitator in each of the five projects. “In the libraries, we come into contact with disciplines throughout the university. We have great respect for those disparate methodologies, and we can help interpret different methodologies from one discipline to another. The university library…[is] really a microcosm of the university.”


So far, early findings bear out the effectiveness of this multidisciplinary research model. Sapp Nelson described a satisfying moment when she learned the themes that emerged in her interviews matched both the qualitative and quantitative data collected from household surveys: “One of the things I think that’s interesting that emerged in the data is that the elderly take longer to rebuild. I have that in my qualitative data as just anecdotal evidence from people who are very experienced disaster response professionals.… The fact that it came up at the household level data and that we can identify that happened, that was one of those moments when I thought, excellent, that’s pretty great.”

With these solid findings backed up by mixed methods research, Indiana policy makers can target the elderly as part of disaster preparedness and community resilience plans. Meanwhile, Purdue University now has a model for interdisciplinary research that it can use in future cross-department collaborations.

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