2022 Kohl Award Winners announced

Profile photos of Christine Durrance, Morgan Edwards, Jason Fletcher, and Tana Johnson

Scrolling the real estate listings on Zillow became a national obsession in the last two years as people looked for fantasy alternatives to the pandemic’s grinding stress. But while others were ogling granite countertops and built-in pools, Assistant Professor Morgan Edwards was figuring out how to use Zillow’s data on everything related to American homes to analyze the relationship between heat pumps—a low-carbon home-heating option—and demographic characteristics like race, ethnicity, and income. And thanks to a grant from the 2022 Herb Kohl Public Service Research Competition, she’ll be able to dig deeper into this work, with the goal of informing community groups and policymakers about how to make heat pumps more available and appealing to Wisconsin households.

The Kohl Competition supports nonpartisan research that policymakers can use to make evidence-based decisions about how to solve the big problems we face as a society. The awards are intended to expand the influence of La Follette School faculty research and to increase the research’s impact through targeted outreach. Associate Professor Christine Durrance, Professor Jason Fletcher, and Associate Professor Tana Johnson also received grants this year to fund a variety of projects.

Durrance will use data from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency to identify geographic areas with problematic opioid use. The data, recently released by court order, track all U.S. opioid shipments from manufacturers to the hospitals, pharmacies, and practitioners who dispense them. Using this data to calculate rates of inappropriate opioid prescribing will allow Durrance to draw conclusions about the effects of these prescriptions on overdose mortality, neonatal health, and the well-being of families.

Johnson will use her funding to study gridlock in World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiations. She’ll focus on the tendency of rich countries to demand reciprocal reductions in trade barriers, while poor countries argue for one-way redistributions of resources and technology to benefit their populations. She will analyze transcripts of WTO negotiations, looking for words indicating frustration and quibbling over non-substantive issues. With this data in hand, she will determine if global shocks like the 2008 financial crisis exacerbated signs of gridlock, causing governments to double down on their preferences for reciprocity or redistribution.

Fletcher’s project will focus on reports indicating that Wisconsin has some of the country’s largest racial inequalities in incarceration, education, and health outcomes. Is it true, as many media stories have claimed, that Wisconsin is the worst state for Black Americans to live? Fletcher plans to reevaluate the data and consider alternative explanations that take into account levels of specific outcomes (such as life expectancy) versus disparities in the same outcomes. He will also consider the concentration of Black Wisconsinites in Milwaukee in relation to the rest of the state and the recent migration of Black Americans to Wisconsin, making use of research showing that where people are born has a huge effect on how their lives turn out.

Launched in 2016, the research competition is funded by the Kohl Initiative — a $10 million gift from former U.S. Senator Herb Kohl. Board of Visitors member Curt Culver, who served on the selection committee, appreciates the award’s practical focus: “The beauty of the Kohl competition, thanks to the Senator’s generous funding, is that we are addressing real-life issues and not just conducting academic exercises.”