DU wins Defense Department grant to predict the sociopolitical future

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What if it were possible to predict the next Arab Spring? The next Ukrainian revolution? Researchers at the Pardee Center for International Futures in the School of International Studies at the University of Denver might be able to do just that in several years.

DU was one of eleven schools selected this year by the Department of Defense to receive a research grant through the Minerva Initiative. The school's proposal, "Taking Development (Im)Balance Seriously: Using New Approaches to Measure and Model State Fragility," aims to create new ways of examining instability in countries across the world in order to forecast abrupt sociopolitical changes.

The Minerva Initiative was launched in 2008 by then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to create a better understanding of social, cultural and political terrains abroad. To be considered for a grant, a research team must submit a "white paper" -- a short report (four pages or fewer is the Minerva requirement) outlining what the research would cover. From there, a small percentage of the white papers are selected for expansion into a full proposal. Only a handful of the latter are finally chosen.

DU is hardly the first institution interested in analyzing the stability of foreign countries. The Economist, for example, has measurements in place to look at political stability. But Jonathan Moyer, associate director of the Pardee Center, says those measurements do a bad job of predicting the onset of radical change. What they're missing, he believes, is the association of development and risk.

"What we're interested in adding is this notion of balance," Moyer says. "That's going to hopefully help us understand instability in middle-income countries, not just the low-income countries. Trying to pull out the Tunisias and the Libyas and the Ukraines. And why they might be unstable."

Barry Hughes, Pardee Center director and a principal investigator for this project, has spent most of his career developing International Futures, a quantitative model to forecast future development across 186 countries. This model has been used by numerous foreign political bodies and will be a large part of the research around state fragility.

By analyzing imbalances in things like gender, debt and the level of democracy, the research will cover across-the-board inequality. There's a huge initiative to predict instability, Moyer says: "If we know when bad stuff is going to happen, if someone is listening, we can hopefully do something about it."

As he describes it, the researchers look at each country like a piece of cloth. Each cloth has a certain amount of flammable material on it. The material alone can not start a fire; it needs a spark. State fragility lends to sparks that become much larger fires.

Grants like this one typically go to larger research institutions. So Moyer says this project is both a great opportunity for the Pardee Center, and for DU at large.

See the full list of Minerva Research Award winners here.

From our archives: "Presidential debate winner? University of Denver."

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