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In 2013, a team of doctoral students at Purdue University's School of Aeronautics and Astronautics won NIJ's Body Armor Challenge, which sought ways to determine how long body armor maintains its viability. The problem had been that testing body armor being used in the field by shooting a bullet into it destroyed the armor. The Purdue students proposed a solution called the Vibration Energy Signature Test.
Two things about the Challenge winners are noteworthy: First, their solution drew on aeronautics rather than from criminal justice research, and second, the winners were young. Greg Ridgeway, former Acting Director of NIJ, said the Challenge represents one of several approaches that the Institute is using to build up the next generation of criminal justice researchers across the United States.
"Young researchers are important because they don't have preconceived notions of how things are supposed to be, which allows for creative solutions to questions, as well as innovative approaches to problem-solving," said Ridgeway.
NIJ provides a multilevel system of support — helping researchers at every level of their careers — through programs and initiatives such as the W.E.B. Du Bois Fellowship, the Graduate Research Fellowship, the Data Resources Program and various internships. Below is a brief overview of these programs and how they support and promote America's next generation of criminal justice researchers.
W.E.B. Du Bois Fellowship
The cultural backgrounds of millions of people are inextricably woven into the fabric of the United States. As a research agency, NIJ recognizes how important these cultural intricacies are to furthering our understanding of race, gender and culture and how they interact with crime and the administration of justice. NIJ developed the W.E.B. Du Bois Fellowship to support new scholars as they explore the intersections of these social phenomena.
Under the guidance of Nadine Frederique, a social science analyst with NIJ, the program has grown and expanded in recent years. According to Frederique, when she started at NIJ, there was generally one fellow selected each year for up to $100,000 of funding. In 2013, that increased to three fellowships. This year, $150,000 is available for each fellow, depending on the type of research.
"We are strongly encouraging new and emerging scholars to apply for the fellowship," Frederique said. "The program is a great opportunity to help young scholars dip their toes into the grant-writing enterprise — and our Du Bois Fellows often go on to receive tenure at their institutions."
In fact, helping researchers achieve tenure is one of the program's goals. Another goal is disseminating the Fellows' research and raising awareness of their work to a national level through panels and workshops at NIJ and at national conferences.
The W.E.B. Du Bois Fellowship allows for a broad range of research topics. In 2013, the program made awards for research on the following topics:
- Victimization and fear of crime among Arab Americans in metro Detroit. This project investigates Arab Americans' experiences with crime, their fear of crime and factors that affect their risks of victimization.
- Racial socialization among African-Americans. This project looks at how racial socialization and gender can moderate the impact of racial discrimination on crime among African-Americans.
- Dispute-related violence. This project examines how disputes shape violence.
Graduate Research Fellowship
The Graduate Research Fellowship (GRF), one of NIJ's signature fellowship programs, supports promising doctoral candidates with a paid fellowship for dissertation research on crime, violence and other topics related to criminal justice. Marie Garcia, a fellow herself before she joined NIJ as a social science analyst, manages the GRF program in the social and behavioral sciences.
Data Resources Program
"Educating and supporting young researchers at key levels of their career paths is indispensable," says Patrick Clark, a former NIJ social science program specialist who managed the Data Resources Program (DRP).
According to Clark, this is one of the main goals of DRP, which allows researchers free access to one of the oldest social science archives in the U.S., the National Archive of Criminal Justice Data (NACJD). The NACJD database collects and preserves the raw data sets created through NIJ-funded research so that researchers can further analyze them using new techniques.
DRP uses a two-pronged approach to help young researchers. First, it provides a small grant of $40,000 to young, tenure-track scholars looking to conduct research and publish their findings. These scholars can work with secondary data — data already collected by another researcher and stored in NACJD — and analyze it in new ways, possibly replicating previous research or yielding different results.
Second, the program allows professors to access NACJD and give their students the opportunity to learn research design and data analysis with real-life data sets. For example, Janet Lauritsen, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, has her students attempt to replicate results from past criminal justice research that has had its data stored in NACJD.
"The value in this," said Clark, "lies in the fact that this is a reasonable facsimile of real research. Hopefully, this is what these students will be doing when they graduate — they are analyzing data from actual sources collected by criminal justice researchers."
In the coming years, NIJ plans to modify the program to respond to the changing needs of the next generation of researchers. By developing webinars and videos that can be accessed on the Internet, Clark hopes to teach young researchers necessary skills such as data collection, preparation and management. He added that NIJ is trying to make DRP more relevant by talking with professors about what they need to educate their students.
Over the years, NIJ has worked with student interns, including through the University of Maryland's Federal Semester Program.
Students Working With Researchers
In addition to programs that directly focus on building the next generation of criminal justice researchers, the types of projects NIJ funds have an important indirect effect: Students often get to work with the primary investigators.
Here is just one example: To understand why there are so many untested sexual assault kits in evidence or storage rooms across the country, NIJ funded what is called an "action-research" project, in which academics team up with practitioners. Over the past three years, NIJ awarded grants to the Houston Police Department, which subcontracted the research portions to both Sam Houston State University and the University of Texas at Austin. The lead investigators are seasoned and respected researchers, but — as is often the case in an academic environment — the projects have had a "trickle-down" effect that may greatly affect some young researchers' careers.
Investing in the Future
All of these programs are examples of how NIJ is building the research infrastructure in the United States, a goal the National Academy of Sciences specifically called for in its 2010 report Strengthening the National Institute of Justice. By providing young researchers with the tools and skills they need to succeed, NIJ is also investing in its own future, as the Institute begins to embrace a new generation of criminal justice researchers who have benefited from this variety of support programs.
About This Article
This artice appeared in NIJ Journal Issue 274, December 2014.