Policy Task Forces

Policy Task Forces are the most distinctive feature of our undergraduate program. They address unfinished questions of public policy, often characterized by rapidly changing circumstances. Topics are selected for their timeliness, their suitability for research and task force deliberation, and their public importance. Task forces often blend domestic and international concerns, economic and legal analysis, scientific and political approaches, and ethical and institutional issues. The nature of the problem requires students to go beyond library research and interact with government officials and others actively engaged in the relevant issues. Task force members debate proposed recommendations as a group and combine information from their individual research, guest speakers, field visits, and group discussions to arrive at a set of recommendations on the policy problem.

For more detailed information, please access the SPIA Undergraduate Program Guide to Junior Independent Work.

Getting Started in Data Analysis: Topic Selection and Crafting of a Research Question - Independent research projects start with the selection of a topic and the crafting of a feasible research question. This video maps the initial steps to help...


Topics for Fall 2021 Include:

Monday, 1:30-4 PM Heather Howard

States play critical roles in health care, as providers, regulators, and promoters of the public health. This has been particularly true during the COVID-19 pandemic, where states have been on the frontlines in addressing the crisis. We will examine how states have responded – from expanding access to testing and health coverage to ramping up workforce capacity and targeting vaccine distribution – and implications for the evolving nature of federal-state relations.

In addition, the pandemic has taken a disproportionate toll on communities of color, magnifying health inequities driven by systemic racism. We will investigate the staggering toll of health disparities in the U.S. health care system, how COVID-19 has exacerbated these disparities, and potential state responses to advance health equity. Finally, we will discuss the broader drivers of health status and whether and how the health care system can address the social determinants affecting health.

The task force will explore these policy challenges and develop and prioritize policy proposals in a report in the form of recommendations to the New Jersey state government.

Heather Howard is a lecturer in the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs and director of State Health and Value Strategies, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation-funded program providing technical assistance to states to improve health and health care. She served as New Jersey’s Commissioner of Health and Senior Services from 2008 to 2010.

Monday, 1:30-4 PM Doug Mercado

Conflicts, natural disasters, and pandemics, along with diverse forms of political and economic instability, consistently upend the lives of hundreds of millions of individuals in dozens of countries around the world each year. Crisis-impacted populations lose varying degrees of access to essential elements of life: food, clean water, sanitation, shelter, health care, education, and protection. These catastrophic events lead to the loss of life and untold suffering. The United Nations estimates that 235 million people will require humanitarian assistance in 2021 due to political upheaval, displacement, disease outbreaks, hunger, and severe and frequent weather events and natural disasters, which often exacerbate chronic vulnerabilities.

Both formal and informal systems of humanitarian assistance at the local, national, regional, and international levels have evolved over the years to address the pressing needs of vulnerable individuals and communities in the aftermath of a disaster. However, political obstacles can often block or severely limit the delivery of timely and adequate humanitarian aid to those in need. Governments of crisis-affected countries may impede the flow of assistance when they prioritize political or military agendas over saving the lives of their own citizens. Donor governments may direct their humanitarian aid budgets to support foreign policy objectives rather than supporting those populations most in need.

This task force will explore the policies of governments that reduce the delivery of aid or turn off the “tap” of humanitarian assistance completely during emergencies when it is known that these decisions will lead to unnecessary mortality and misery. It will seek out options for the delivery of humanitarian aid using various tools and strategies that can be utilized to overcome political barriers that prevent vulnerable populations from accessing life-saving support.

Doug Mercado has worked in the field of international disaster assistance and post-conflict recovery for most of the past 25 years on assignments with the United Nations, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and various nongovernmental organizations. He has managed humanitarian relief operations and refugee assistance programs in more than a dozen countries. Most recently, he led USAID’s Disaster Assistance Response Team for the Ebola crisis in West Africa.

Monday, 7:30-10 PM Nicky Sheats

The environmental justice (EJ) advocacy community has almost uniquely called for climate change mitigation policy to not only fight climate change but to also address the disproportionate amount of pollution often found in EJ residential communities, i.e., communities of color and low-income communities. An important goal would be to reduce emissions of GHG co-pollutants, such as airborne particulate matter, that have detrimental local health impacts and compose part of disproportionate pollution burdens. Reducing co-pollutant emissions would improve the health of residents in EJ communities.

EJ groups have invested considerable thought in creating this type of strategy for the power generation sector and are developing similar ideas to apply to the transportation sector. They recognize the need to reduce GHG emissions from mobile sources and are also eager to reduce harmful emissions from diesel-powered vehicles. However, many EJ organizations have rejected a mobile source mitigation proposal called the Transportation and Climate Initiative, in large part because it would use a carbon-trading system as its core policy that would not guarantee emissions reductions in EJ communities.

In New Jersey, the EJ community has suggested policies that don’t use carbon-trading to lower mobile source GHG emissions, but some questions remain regarding these strategies, such as: Do some policies need to be prioritized? How can it be ensured that policies will achieve reductions in EJ communities? Are there legal barriers to such policies? And do additional policies need to be developed? There are other questions that could be explored including those of a more technical nature and how other states are addressing this issue.

Task force participants will attempt to answer these and related questions, and will present their findings to a variety of members of the New Jersey and national EJ community.

Nicky Sheats is the director of the Center for the Urban Environment of the John S. Watson Institute for Public Policy at Thomas Edison State University, a center whose primary mission is to provide support for the environmental justice (EJ) community. Sheats was a founding member of the NJ EJ Alliance, EJ Leadership Forum, EJ and Science Initiative and an informal NE EJ Attorneys Group. He has been appointed to the NJ Clean Air Council, EPA’s Clean Air Act Advisory Committee and National EJ Advisory Council, and was a co-author of the human health chapter of the 2014 national climate assessment. He is currently serving on the White House EJ Advisory Council.

Monday, 1:30-4 PM Udi Ofer

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with 4% of the world’s population yet 21% of the world’s people in prison. This distinction has been driven by a number of policies implemented over the past 50 years, including mandatory minimum sentencing, the increased use of cash bail, aggressive and discriminatory prosecutorial and police practices, and a broadening of offenses that are punishable through jail and prison time. Of the incarcerated population in the United States, 60% is Black or Latino.

In recent years, social movements have grown calling for an end to mass incarceration and policymakers on the left and right have responded by rethinking the “tough on crime” policies that have led to high incarceration rates and racial disparities in prisons and jails. This task force will review the policies that have driven the growth in the nation’s incarceration rates and examine ways to reduce prison and jail populations. It will address some of the most important issues related to criminal justice reform: racial justice, public safety, fairness, deterrence, and policing practices that have fueled protests across the nation. The task force report will be in the form of recommendations that will be presented to federal lawmakers in Washington, DC.

Udi Ofer is the deputy national political director of the American Civil Liberties Union and director of its Justice Division.

Monday, 1:30-4 PMRick Barton

For decades, the United States and the international community have stumbled into conflicts, sought ways to advance peace, and repeated mistakes. While new practices appear, there is a return to familiar diplomatic, humanitarian, development, and military ways. In order to end cycles of violence, practitioners must find and promote systemic changes at the local level and in global capitals. This task force will review a handful of contemporary conflicts, review the latest theories and innovations, and apply them to current situations in different parts of the world – with the intent of systemic improvement in pre- and post-conflict efforts.

Class discussions will focus on historic and current cases (from Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Syria, Libya, North Central America, and beyond), and use pilots, experiments, war games, red teams, mass and social media, documentary films, popular campaigns, big data and self-directed surveys, and other breakout ideas. Leading field professionals, from ambassadors to on-the-ground researchers to local citizens, will join the task force on a regular basis.

The course’s foundational model emphasizes improved knowledge of the places and people, integrated strategies, local ownership and catalytic action, and real-time measurements of progress. Classroom exercises and team assignments will enliven the dialogue.

The Junior Papers will apply policy and practice in crises of the students’ choosing. The task force report will synthesize the latest ideas and report on their efficacy to senior leaders in the national security community in Washington, DC or at the United Nations in New York.

Rick Barton is the co-director of Princeton’s Scholars in the Nation’s Service Initiative. He previously served as the first Assistant Secretary of State for Conflict and Stabilization Operations, as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Economic and Social Council, as Deputy High Commissioner at the UN Refugee Agency, and as founding director of the USAID Office of Transition Initiatives. He authored "Peace Works – America’s Unifying Role in a Turbulent World".

Wednesday, 7:30-10 PMMickey Edwards

The American system of government rests on a framework of separated powers with the governing authority divided between a national legislature, which is constitutionally authorized to write the laws and to set both taxing and spending policies, and an executive charged with administering the laws but with significant additional powers. In addition to this horizontal division of federal authority, power is divided vertically between the federal government and the states. One purpose of this model was to prevent the accumulation of power in too few hands, but a second effect was to thus force negotiation and compromise to ensure that multiple voices would be heard in formulating the nation’s laws and policies. This textbook description of American governance seems quaint today, with little resemblance to the government we see today with deliberation and compromise too often replaced by rival forces divided by political parties, which have no constitutional basis but wield ultimate power on today’s political stage. Major legislation even in the midst of national emergencies, election procedures, the appointment of federal judges, all become fodder for paralyzing partisan conflict.

America is both a democracy (citizens choose their leaders) and a constitutional republic with rules that both empower and constrain government. In this task force, we will consider the effects of party-based governance and develop a menu of recommended reforms to both ensure meaningful, fair, and just elections and restore the ability of elected officials to work more cooperatively in the public interest. The results will be presented to elected officials and to leaders in the political reform community.

Mickey Edwards is lecturer in public and international affairs and John L. Weinberg/Goldman Sachs and Company visiting professor. He was a member of Congress for 16 years and chairman of his party’s policy committee. He later served as an adviser to the State Department.

Monday, 1:30-4 PMSalam Fayyad

In one form or another, gender equality has become accepted as a foundational organizing principle in virtually all countries around the world. Yet the reality of equal rights remains at variance, albeit to substantially differing degrees, with practice, both across countries as well as domains within each country. In some instances, progress toward the attainment of the equality ideal has been stymied by seemingly irreconcilable differences between civil and religious code provisions on personal affairs, on the one hand, and absolutist constitutional provisions on equality on the other. One such instance pertains to provisions on the distribution of inheritance. Using the policy debate on this issue in Tunisia as an example, the task force will seek to explore and identify pragmatic solutions that have the potential of realizing full equality without undermining or interfering with the application of sacrosanct rules. Impossible? Let us see!

Salam Fayyad, an economist, is former prime minister of the Palestinian Authority (2007-13). Currently, Fayyad is a distinguished visiting scholar and lecturer at Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, a distinguished statesman with the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, and a distinguished fellow at the Brookings Institution. Fayyad holds a Bachelor of Science degree from the American University of Beirut, a Master of Business Administration from St. Edward's University, and a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Texas at Austin.