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The Citizen

PAE Funding Mechanism Leaves Students with Questions and Costs

By Mike Conway, Business Manager, MPP ‘13

Ever wonder how gender roles in India are changing in light of the country’s transition to more commercialized agriculture? Second year MPP Lorin Fries certainly does. Like many MPP2s, Fries spent part of her winter holiday conducting field research for her Policy Analysis Exercise (PAE); crisscrossing India for three weeks to interview farmers, government officials and representatives from NGOs and the private sector on gender and food rights. Her client, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, will be drawing on the research in preparation for his remarks to the UN General Assembly in 2013.

According to Fries, the PAE experience has been one of the most rewarding aspects of the MPP program. But it has not come cheaply. Like most students, she applied for a travel grant through the HKS common application, which allows students to apply to all the Kennedy School research centers for which their PAE has relevance. Fries found support as a result of her concentration in International and Global Affairs. “While the Common Application funding team was not able to offer me funding, I did receive about half of my requested amount from the Belfer International Global Affairs fund — almost exactly the cost of my flight,” she said. The remaining costs, however, she had to pay herself.

Her situation is not unique. Laura Homokay, Fieldwork Programs Manager in the Office of Career Advancement, calculates that just under half of all students receive no funding from the Harvard Kennedy School to complete their PAE. Projects that do receive support are awarded $2,300, on average, which many students say is not nearly enough to cover all the costs of doing research, particularly abroad. “While there is more funding available and more research centers that support students than in the past, there are always some people who unfortunately don’t get funding,” said Homokay.

For students who do not receive funding, some are able to rely on their client to defray the costs, when the organization has the resources and is willing to contribute. Ryan Ross, who is working with Americans Elect, a U.S. non-profit advocating for political reform, has had his research costs paid in full by his client. “[They] covered all my meals and travel expenses, including interviews, transcription services, and a lot of money for camera crews to tape my interviews,” Said Ross. “When you have a client who is willing to make that kind of investment into your project, you really feel like your work is valuable to the organization.”

Others are not as fortunate. For Maribeth Black and Hamissou Samari, who are writing separate PAEs focusing on the West Africa region, the shortage of funding has forced them to scale back their research to avoid having to spend their own money; money they say they simply do not have. “Considering the excessively high traveling cost for Burkina Faso, I was pessimistic that I would be able to get enough funding; so I didn’t want to go through the process and then still have to come out of pocket for part or all of the expenses. And my client could not fund my transport,” said Samari, who did not apply for a travel grant. Instead, Samari has been able to utilize his personal contacts and those through his summer internship to hold interviews over the phone and through email. While this has made his PAE more difficult to conduct, he says he is happy with his choice and would make the same decision again.

While Black did receive funding through the common application, she said that it was simply not enough to make a dent in the cost of travel for her three-person team. To make matters worse, her funding decision was not finalized until December 12, at which point airfare costs had increased significantly, adding to the trip’s overall total. As a result, one team member elected to not travel so that her money could be used for other expenses.

The pattern that emerges is that while PAE proposals are naturally very diverse, few students fully understand the criteria that their proposals are evaluated on when being considered for funding. Certain PAEs receive support from multiple centers, others none at all; but no one is completely aware of how decisions are being made. As a result, students who do not receive the funding they need may be left to wonder if they have been treated fairly or adequately supported by faculty and staff.

Tim Glynn-Burke, Research Assistant at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, helped shed some light on his center’s process. The Ash Center receives around eighty to ninety applications each year. Glynn-Burke reads each proposal and selects those he feels are most in line with the research priorities of the center, and then passes them onto a selection committee. The selection committee has about six members comprised of a combination of faculty, research fellows and program staff, who then look at the shortlisted applications and consider quality, feasibility, and relevance to determine which projects the center will ultimately support.

“The centers that participate in the common application get together and make an effort to ensure that there is no overlap or duplication,” said Glynn-Burke. “It allows us to make sure that more students get support. So the meeting is not around deciding which projects are the most competitive, rather coordinating so that as many students get funding as possible.”

Even if it is true that centers are more willing to support student’s PAEs and have dedicated more resources to them, students like Black feel they are being forced to pay more money than others in order to graduate. “We all elected to come to a policy school, and a big part of that is doing the PAE, which means that HKS has to have the process and funding in place to better support students,” she said. “Without that, I don’t know how the school can make it a requirement for graduation. How am I supposed to interview pastoralists in Mali without actually visiting the country?”

With the limited amount of funding that is available to students, MPP1s should strongly consider the costs of carrying out their research and whether or not they are able to contribute. Working with a client who has limited resources or having a focus on a large geographic area is likely to require additional money, even when they are able to secure funding through the centers.

Do you think PAE funding should be prioritized by HKS? Email and tell us what you think!