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LAPOP Receives $10 Million USAID Grant to Support AmericasBarometer Survey

Posted by on Wednesday, December 4, 2019 in Research.

Vanderbilt’s LAPOP lab for international survey research has received a $10 million, five-year U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) grant to support its influential AmericasBarometer survey and related activities. The grant is the third received from USAID, which has a long-standing collaborative relationship with LAPOP. LAPOP Director and Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor of Political Science Elizabeth Zechmeister and LAPOP Associate Director and Associate Professor of Political Science Noam Lupu authored the winning proposal.

The AmericasBarometer, which collects public opinion data on issues related to democracy and governance across the Western Hemisphere, has its roots in the research of Mitchell Seligson, emeritus Centennial Professor of Political Science and Professor of Sociology at Vanderbilt. A pioneer in the study of democracy and Latin American politics, Seligson began doing survey research in Costa Rica in the 1970s after serving in the Peace Corps there.

Survey workers asking a citizen questions
AmericasBarometer works in collaboration with local populations to survey citizens about democracy. Above, a local AmericasBarometer worker (C) and Vanderbilt graduate student Facundo Salles Kobilanski (R) pre-test questions in the field.

“Costa Rica was the only democracy in the region at the time, so it was the only environment where you could ask people about their opinions without putting them or yourself at risk,” said Zechmeister.

As democracy spread to more Latin American countries, Seligson started new surveys. He soon connected with USAID, which administers the U.S. foreign assistance program providing economic and humanitarian assistance in more than 80 countries worldwide, because his research dovetailed with the organization’s strategic goals for the region. When USAID suggested gathering the surveys under one umbrella, the AmericasBarometer was born. With support from USAID and other sponsors, the AmericasBarometer has grown to encompass 34 countries. LAPOP publishes a widely-read report on the findings of each biennial survey.

“Many academics choose to specialize in political science because they care about politics and the ‘real world,’ but a lot of academia is done from an office, oriented toward journals that are not very visible outside of the academy,” Zechmeister said. “What’s exciting about the AmericasBarometer and LAPOP is that we produce academic research, but we also produce research that gets used by policymakers in their decisions.”

LAPOP director Liz Zechmeister speaking at reception
LAPOP Director Liz Zechmeister speaks at a reception celebrating the new USAID grant.

Findings from the AmericasBarometer have influenced police reform in Guyana, electoral reform in Peru, and other policy decisions made by Latin American and Caribbean governments. Zechmeister, Lupu, and members of their research team regularly present their work to USAID, government officials across the Americas, and other members of the international development community.

Lupu researches why Latin American political parties collapse, along with questions of representation, inequality, and political violence. Working with LAPOP and the AmericasBarometer allows him to see how those issues impact everyday Latin Americans’ political attitudes and behaviors. He’s excited by the new grant’s potential to boost the effectiveness of the AmericasBarometer—not just as a decision-making tool for policymakers, but also as a model for other researchers.

“For this particular grant, we have really emphasized innovation and high-quality data as a way to move the research on public opinion, democracy, and survey methods,” he said.

LAPOP and the AmericasBarometer have another important role to play: they serve as an incubator for future political scientists and policymakers. Thanks to funding from Vanderbilt’s Trans-Institutional Program initiative and support from USAID, 10-15 undergraduate students per semester have the opportunity to participate in LAPOP research.

Bianca Herlory ’20 is one of those students. A European Studies and Musical Arts double major and World Politics minor, Herlory has worked at LAPOP since the summer after her sophomore year. Fluent in both Spanish and Portuguese, she has translated interviews, edited reports, helped evaluate the effectiveness of survey questions, and learned to use STATA and SPSS. When Zechmeister and Lupu were trying to decide whether to send a field team to Haiti last year, they asked Herlory to write a security memo that guided their decision.

LAPOP graduate student working in Haiti
Vanderbilt undergraduate student Noemi Monnerville pre-tests AmericasBarometer survey questions in Haiti.

“[Working at LAPOP] is a good opportunity to interact with professors and staff who are very knowledgeable in their area,” Herlory said. “I think if I hadn’t worked here, I might not have realized I wanted to study political science or international relations. I’m looking at internships in research analysis in D.C., and I don’t think I would be doing that if I hadn’t worked here. This has prepared me for graduate research and given me self-confidence that I am qualified for the work.”

In Zechmeister’s view, both the USAID grant and LAPOP’s work with undergraduate and graduate students dovetail neatly with the lab’s overall mission: making a meaningful impact on both the academic and wider worlds.

“The work of LAPOP is significant in so many ways,” Zechmeister said. “It advances scholarship on democratic politics in the Americas, it provides evidence that shapes policy, and it helps train a new generation of political scientists. And through their work in the lab, our students learn that political science isn’t just about theories and data—it is also about connecting what we learn in a classroom, or a lab, to the world around us.”

The LAPOP grant proposal was supported by Research Development and Support (RDS), which offers proposal development assistance for strategic, federally funded opportunities. Services include coordination for complex proposals, content development, and draft review. RDS is in the Office of the Vice Provost for Research.


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