Special Call for Proposals for Project Teams Related to Democracy and Governance in a Polarized World

Deadline to submit: Thursday, March 31, 2022 at 5:00 p.m.

Important Note: This RFP is only for 2022-2023 projects addressing issues related to democracy. Our next general call for Bass Connections projects will be issued in August 2022.


Bass Connections brings together faculty, postdocs, graduate students, undergraduates and community partners to tackle complex societal challenges in interdisciplinary research teams. This special call is for year-long project teams seeking to address issues related to the challenges of sustaining strong democratic institutions during FY 2022-2023. Funding for project teams is between $5,000 and $25,000. 

For some faculty, Bass Connections provides a mechanism to pilot a new research initiative and lay the groundwork for external grant proposals. For others, Bass Connections offers an innovative teaching model and the chance to mentor students in a small group atmosphere. Bass Connections also provides a model for initiating or deepening engagement with a community organization or collaborators outside of Duke who can provide input into the construction of research questions and translate research findings into action. For more information about benefits for faculty, see our faculty perspectives or our faculty evaluation report.

Recent Threats to Democracy

By many measures – including freedom of the press, free and fair elections, and government transparency – democracy is declining in much of the world. Indeed, the nonprofit Freedom House’s 2021 report concludes that nearly 75 percent of the world’s population lived in a country that faced deteriorating conditions for democracy last year. Here in the U.S., 2021 began with an insurrection on the Capitol, to be followed by many states passing new laws restricting voting access and reconfiguring election oversight. A CNN poll from September 2021 found that 93% of Americans say that democracy is either under attack (56%) or being tested (37%). A November 2021 NPR poll found that just 62% of Americans say they will trust the 2024 election, regardless of who wins.

Bass Connections issues this special call for proposals for teams interested in tackling solutions aimed at strengthening democracy, at home or abroad, through a Bass Connections project in 2022-2023. Research questions may include, but are not limited to: 

  • Why is democracy worth defending? Where has democracy proven effective, and in what contexts has it failed? What reforms might help democratic institutions live up to their ideals?
  • What has contributed to the increase in authoritarianism worldwide? What are the historical roots of these contemporary challenges, and how might the past offer critical perspective and lessons for the future of democratic ideals, institutions and practices?
  • How important are the concepts of the rule of law and the existence of an independent judiciary to democracy? How have societies effectively negotiated the trade-offs between democratic decision-making and the protection of individual and minority rights? 
  • How have other emerging issues, including climate change, rising inequality and inflation, and the COVID-19 pandemic, impacted democracy in the U.S. and internationally? What interventions might seek to strengthen democratic resiliency in the face of social crises and economic inequality? 
  • Access to strong local media has been linked to political engagement and increased transparency. What new models might shore up and/or invigorate local media and journalism?
  • How are the arts and humanities inspiring new conversations about democracy and polarization? How do the arts push us to think differently about democracy or inspire new and innovative forms of political organization?
  • How should technology platforms be governed to ensure accountability and promote democracy?
  • How might we restore trust in the media and voting systems, reinvigorate popular engagement in civic life, and/or fashion new institutions for popular participation in democratic processes?
  • What solutions might bridge growing levels of political polarization, or what policy changes might allow government to operate more effectively in a continuing polarized environment?

In partnership with the Digital Humanities Initiative at the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute, we also strongly encourage projects with a substantial digital or computational humanities dimension.

Proposal Deadline and Submission

The deadline for proposals is Thursday, March 31, 2022 at 5:00 p.m. 

All proposals must be submitted through the online proposal form. You may work directly within the online form and save and return to the form as you work. You may also preview the proposal questions and draft your responses using the following Word template

The guidelines below are intended to provide guidance on the proposal process and address common questions. Interested faculty, particularly those who have never led a Bass Connections team, are also encouraged to contact a Bass Connections theme leader or Laura Howes, Director of Bass Connections, at laura.howes@duke.edu with questions or to discuss potential ideas. Or, drop in at any time to one of our informal Zoom office hours (https://duke.zoom.us/j/6666010362):   

  • Friday, February 11, 10:00-11:00
  • Thursday, March 17, 12:00-1:00 

Key Requirements and Eligibility

  • Proposals may be submitted by faculty, staff, graduate students, postdocs and trainees/fellows, but all projects must have at least one faculty team leader
  • Individuals may propose more than one project but should not serve as a team leader on more than one project per year, unless those projects each have another committed co-leader who is a regular rank faculty member. Individuals may serve as a team contributor on more than one project.
  • Team leaders are expected to be regularly available (i.e., not on sabbatical away from Durham or extended leave) during the year in which the project would take place (2022-2023), and at least one team leader is expected to attend each team meeting. We recommend that faculty notify their department chairs of their intent to apply, in order to help with departmental planning. 
  • Teams should provide opportunities for at least five students (both graduate and undergraduate) to participate. 
  • Bass Connections teams are expected to meet at least weekly. During the academic year, students receive academic credit as the default mechanism (via a tutorial or independent study). Student compensation during the academic year is generally reserved for students in leadership roles on a team.  
  • Projects typically run for either 9 or 12 months. Projects may start in Summer 2022 or Fall 2022.

The Bass Connections Model

Bass Connections project teams should include three core connections

  1. Across areas of disciplinary expertise
  2. Across learner levels
  3. Between the academy and the broader world 

Project teams are expected to be more than a collection of individuals working in parallel. Instead, they should foster dynamic collaboration in which all members are exposed to the diverse aspects of a project and work together toward shared goals

Projects should provide students and faculty the opportunity to grapple collectively with a complex problem and produce meaningful deliverables. Products may take several forms, including published reports and articles, curated exhibits, datasets to spur further research, marketable services or commodities and strategic solutions for community needs. Projects are encouraged (but not required) to involve external community partners (e.g., private companies, school systems, international NGOs and U.S. or international government entities). 

The Model in Practice

For faculty who have never led a Bass Connections project, the following information may be helpful in understanding how the program works operationally:

  • Team leadership: Teams are generally led by at least two leaders — at least one of whom must be a faculty member. Staff, graduate students, postdocs and trainees/fellows may co-lead projects, but all projects must have at least one faculty team leader. Team leaders are actively engaged in setting project goals, managing project details and mentoring students. Team leaders should attend all (or almost all) team meetings. Teams may also include faculty contributors who engage with the team occasionally. Team leaders should ideally represent different disciplinary perspectives (even if within the same school or department). If team leaders do not represent different disciplines, the project proposal should clearly articulate how the research, and the team of students to be formed, will take an interdisciplinary approach. Co-leaders from other institutions/external partners are also welcome. Looking for collaborators? Visit myRESEARCHpath for resources or contact us to brainstorm ideas.
  • Meeting times: Teams should meet at least once a week (in person or virtually), with individual task assignments between meetings. Some teams divide into sub-teams that meet weekly and then meet as an entire team every other week or monthly. Appointing a graduate student or postdoc as a project manager can help with the facilitation of these meetings as well as general team productivity and communication. However, please note that project managers are meant to complement, not replace, faculty leadership of a team. 
  • Student credit and compensation: Undergraduate and graduate students generally receive credit during the academic year. Bass Connections will work with you to set up credit options and get students enrolled. By default, teams will be set up as a tutorial, although independent study credit will remain an option. Advanced graduate students and/or students serving in a differentiated role that requires additional responsibilities (e.g., project managers) may receive compensation in lieu of credit. Any compensation for students should be included in the budget. 
  • Team size: The size of Bass Connections teams varies widely and depends on the scope of work, how you envision dividing tasks and your leadership structure. On average, our teams include about ten students (graduate and undergraduate). Given the high degree of student interest, we encourage teams to create opportunities for at least five students per team. All teams must include undergraduate students. Teams are strongly encouraged to include differentiated roles for graduate students to serve as mentors, sub-team leaders and/or project managers. 
  • Student recruitment and selection: Bass Connections program leadership works with team leaders to distribute information about the project to prospective students and to solicit applications through a central application process. Team leaders may also recruit students through their own channels.
  •  Timing of projects: Projects generally run for a year. For some teams this means a full year in which students do baseline research or fieldwork during the summer preceding or following the academic year; other teams take place during the academic year alone. Teams may apply for renewal funding, but funding is only provided one year at a time. 
  • Administrative management: Each Bass Connections theme is led by one or two faculty and a theme administrator. Themes, working with the Bass Connections office, will provide support to teams throughout the year including helping with student recruitment, course credit options, financial management, troubleshooting, etc. Themes also provide opportunities for faculty and students to share practices and lessons across teams. 

Proposal Elements

All proposals must be submitted through the online proposal form, but you may preview this form or prepare your responses using the following Word template. Main proposal elements include:

  1. Basic information: Project name, theme selection, primary point of contact
  2. Project background and description: What issue does the project aim to address and how will the team approach the project? 
  3. Team composition and student opportunities: Team leaders, contributors, ideal composition of the student team, external partners; description of how the team will work together and the opportunities for students 
  4. Timeline and project details: Travel, summer opportunities
  5. Budget estimate

Project Selection Criteria

Proposals are sent out to other faculty for review and are generally assessed on the following dimensions. 

  1. Goal clarity and feasibility: Articulates clear and realistic goals with a sound research approach
  2. Interdisciplinarity: Fosters collaboration across disciplines 
  3. External salience: Addresses an issue of societal importance, ideally by including external partners and/or external engagement as key features of the proposed research 
  4. Teamwork: Describes a clear plan for team-based research
  5. Vertical integration: Fosters collaboration across educational levels (e.g., undergraduate and graduate students), with clearly differentiated leadership roles for graduate students
  6. Budget: Reasonable budget that clearly supports the project goals
  7. Issue alignment: Aligns with the topical focus of the call 

Budget Guidelines

Budgets typically range from $5,000 to $25,000. Funding may cover reasonable research costs such as student support, participant payments, travel, materials and supplies. In general, projects with the highest level of funding include those with travel, summer funding for student work, graduate student support for project management roles, and special research materials.

We strongly encourage proposals that leverage additional funds. Please describe such matching funds (both awarded and under consideration) so that we understand the comprehensive outlay for the project. 

Budget Restrictions

The budget template includes common expenses, but you may also add additional expenses. Please note the following specific guidance:

  • Faculty salary: Budgets should not include faculty salary except when a faculty member is expected to secure 100% of their salary. Faculty salary expenses should not comprise more than 25% of the total budget.
  • Staff salary: Budgets should not generally include staff salary. Exceptions include instances in which staff have specialized skills that cannot be covered by students, postdocs or faculty, and in which the staff member would not otherwise be able to participate in the project without salary coverage. Staff salary expenses should not comprise more than 25% of the total budget. 
  • Postdoc salary: Postdoc salary should be limited to no more than $10,000 (including fringe). 
  • Student support: During the academic year, students participating in Bass Connections should receive course credit in lieu of a stipend. Exceptions include advanced graduate students and/or students serving in a differentiated role that requires additional responsibilities (e.g., project managers). Hourly pay rates* for students in FY 2022-23 are as follows:
  Minimum Maximum
Student Assistants-General $15.00 $19.50
Student Assistants-Advanced/Specialized $16.00 $22.50

*If your budget includes funding for a specific graduate student, we recommend confirming your budget plans with that student’s department and/or referencing Ph.D. student stipend rates.

  • Non-Duke students: Financial support for non-Duke students should only be included in instances when including such students will enhance the research outcomes of the team. This support may include covering expenses that would enable these students to participate but should generally not include direct compensation. 
  • Conferences and publication costs: While we encourage teams to share and distribute their research, teams should limit spending on conferences and/or journal fees to a total of $3,000.

Proposal Selection Timing

  • Proposals should be submitted by March 31, 2022 at 5:00 p.m. 
  • Proposals will be reviewed and refined as needed, and selections will be made by late April.
  • Students will be recruited for selected teams in Summer 2022, with an expedited timeline for teams seeking to begin in Summer 2022. 
  • Projects may begin as early as Summer 2022 and must begin by no later than Fall 2022. 

For More Information

For questions, to discuss potential project ideas, or to identify possible faculty collaborators:

Drop in to one of our Zoom office hour sessions (https://duke.zoom.us/j/6666010362):

  • Friday, February 11, 10:00-11:00
  • Thursday, March 17, 12:00-1:00 

Or contact:

Laura Howes, Director, Bass Connections
(919) 684-9021

Faculty are also welcome to reach out to a Bass Connections Theme Leader or members of the Bass Connections Faculty Advisory Council to discuss project ideas or possible collaborators within their school.