Monday, 14 March 2016

Breaking Barriers

FURCA - Festival of Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities

Recent Science graduate Sean Graham shares his experience as a participant of the U of A's Undergraduate Research Initiative (URI). And spoiler alert! His undergraduate research project has gone well beyond mere interdisciplinary theorizing.

In 2013, I received funding from the Undergraduate Research Initiative to develop a new approach to modernizing Canada’s Single Member Plurality (SMP) electoral system. At the time, I was pursuing a degree in both physics and political science. This made the project a great opportunity for me to utilize the knowledge and skills I had acquired from both of my areas of study. I was first able to draw on my political science background to develop a new electoral system – called Dual-Member Mixed Proportional (DMP) – that would address the democratic shortcomings of SMP in the Canadian context. From there I was able to make use of the computer programming skills I picked up while studying physics to test this new system on past Canadian federal and provincial elections. The comprehensive approach I was able to take in working on this project not only increased the quality of the end result greatly, it also provided useful experience in how to bring a broad set of skills together for a single project.

After completing this work, I was fortunate to have the Department of Political Science sponsor a public lecture about my new electoral system. This provided significant assistance in getting the word out about my research. Indeed, as a result of this lecture, I was invited to present DMP to political science classes at the University of Alberta and advocacy groups, such as Fair Vote Edmonton. However, with no government in Canada considering electoral system reform in 2013, the opportunities available to generate a broader discussion about this kind of research were very limited.
That changed last year. PEI announced that it was going to make another attempt at reforming its electoral system by conducting a plebiscite on the matter in 2016. The new government in Alberta struck a committee to review the Election Act, which may include a discussion about electoral system reform. Finally, the federal election last October brought the Liberal Party back to power with the promise that the next election will be decided by a new electoral system.

In addition to reaching out to the federal political parties, I have made formal submissions to the appropriate committees in Alberta and PEI. While the process in Alberta has barely begun and the federal process hasn’t even started, PEI has made some meaningful progress on this file. Last November, its Special Committee on Democratic Renewal released its first report, which recommended that four alternative electoral systems be considered for inclusion in the plebiscite to be held later this year. I am quite honoured to be able to say that DMP is one of these four alternatives. With the second round of consultations now concluded, the Committee will be finalizing the plebiscite question, which will be made public sometime in the spring.

Without the Undergraduate Research Initiative, this project would not have been possible. Being a student in the Faculty of Science pursuing a research topic in political science disqualified me from the traditional research funding opportunities. By specializing in interdisciplinary research, the Undergraduate Research Initiative fills an important void left by the other research funding programs. It is my hope that the Undergraduate Research Initiative will be able to continue funding research projects like mine and continue to break down the often ridged barriers between different academic disciplines.

Those interested in learning more about my electoral system research should visit And those just as interested in learning about other undergraduate research activities should definitely check out FURCA the Undergraduate Research Initiative’s annual, campus-wide celebration of undergraduate research, showcasing the research and creative achievements of undergraduate students across all disciplines.

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