Chuck France/University Relations

Susan Mercer helps direct programs and conducts research at the Institute for Policy and Social Research.

Campus closeup

Susan Mercer, associate director, Institute for Policy and Social Research

Years at current job: Two years with this title, but roughly 12 years in this capacity.

Job duties: Our director, Steven Maynard-Moody, and I set the vision for the institute and then plot our course going forward. A lot of my work relates to the “how” part of that process – thinking it through, aligning our resources appropriately and managing the progress.

What’s one thing that would surprise people about your work?My work is creative and idea-driven. Much of what I do involves finding possibilities, options and opportunities where there appear to be constricting limitations. For example, one of our ongoing challenges is to professionally comply with all the requirements, rules, regulations and policies imposed by the state, university, federal government and various granting agencies while not becoming totally consumed by them. It takes creativity and clarity of purpose to do this successfully.

The institute brings researchers from various disciplines together in research settings. Why is such collaboration important, and how does it benefit those who take part? The need for interdisciplinary collaboration is increasingly important as we, as a society, work to solve the many and complex problems facing our world. In fact, few of the “big” questions getting media attention can be meaningfully addressed without considering the human and social dimensions involved – climate change, inequality and human rights, health reform and educational system transformation – all have important social dimensions. Take climate change: without engaging economists, sociologists and geographers right along with natural and biological scientists, we can’t know what motivates people to change, what’s at the root of the problem, or perhaps even whether we are solving the right problem.

By working across disciplines, we stand a much better chance of creating integrated and innovative solutions. Each discipline brings something unique and essential to the table, and we expand our perspectives exponentially through this collaboration.

In your research, you examine programs and policies, such as the technical training needs of the Lawrence community. How are the findings of such inquiries used? Are they shared with the community? Through our research, we inform entities about a given topic. In the research you site, we gathered quantitative and qualitative data from Douglas County employers, former students, workers, and educators on the technical training needs in Douglas County. From our findings, we were able to provide the Lawrence School District with a picture of the current landscape and a set of recommendations for action. We shared our findings and recommendations in an open forum with the district and interested community members, and the reports are available from our website. In this case, our research informed policy decisions and strategies for the district.

You also oversee the institute’s scholars program. What is the program, and does it involve students in the research process? The IPSR Scholars program encourages new and early-to-mid career faculty to engage in sponsored research — Steven and I work together on this too. Whenever possible, we work with academic departments to identify promising faculty candidates in order to enhance their recruitment packages.

The impact on students is less direct, but nevertheless evident – the more sponsored research activities on campus, the more opportunities there are for students to engage in research as both undergraduates and graduates. Even if they are not involved in a given faculty member’s research, students certainly reap the benefits in the classroom of a research-engaged professor.

Campus closeup
Susan Mercer, associate director, Institute for Policy and Social Research
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