2020 Call for Democracy Lab Proposals

The Democracy Initiative is pleased to announce a call for new rotating Lab proposals.  Proposals are due on October 1, 2020, and our goal is to launch a new three-year Lab(s) in August 2021 (see calendar, below).

Wednesday, June 3rd Information Session

Submit a proposal


Across the world, democracies are facing extraordinary challenges — whether they are old, new, established, or aspiring.  The vision of democracy as globally ascendant, proclaimed by some as inevitable just a few short decades ago, has proven to be far more precarious than the most optimistic predictions foretold.  At the same time, older, more mature democracies have increasingly struggled with a host of pressures unleashed by successive waves of economic, societal, and cultural changes — developments that have revealed fundamental tensions within and between democratic principles and practices, bringing to light deep contradictions present from their founding moments.

The challenges confronting democracy today are as diverse in form as they are in origin, and it may be tempting to regard these phenomena as harbingers of decline:  the dissolution of a unified concept of “the public,” the failure of democratic states to effectively mediate social and economic inequalities, and the erosion of faith in institutions.  While it is true that democracy today faces daunting pressures, modern democracies have always had to struggle with their own contradictions and ambivalences in order to thrive.  In this light, the public’s sense that we are in a moment of crisis can — and often does — lead to a broader reimagining of what democracy is and how its fundamental promises, as well as the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, can be realized. We are living in such a moment of possibility, and as such, see it as an opportunity to not merely defend but ultimately deepen and extend democracy in our time, making it stronger, more resilient, and truer to its purpose for future generations.

Through rotating research Labs anchored by a permanent Core Lab, the Democracy Initiative is assessing the historical and contemporary challenges facing democracy, articulating the means to address them, and giving voice to a vision for what democracy must be. 

While understandings of democracy -- both in theory and practice -- are diverse and ever-changing, the Initiative is focusing on conditions widely accepted as necessary to evaluate the health of a democracy:

  • Inclusive and responsible citizenship predicated upon liberty, equality, and tolerance;
  • Trusted, effective, and accountable governing institutions;
  • Fact-based civil discourse and communications media;
  • Economic policies that provide equal opportunity and mobility for all; and,
  • Resilient democratic governance in world affairs.

The engine for our work is the alignment of research, teaching, and engagement in public affairs, animated by the work of faculty, staff and students, and informed by engagement with key stakeholders – from community leaders to partnerships with peer domestic and international organizations.  Foundational to all we do is a rigorous examination of the philosophy and practice of democracy. 


The Democracy Initiative, alongside similar programs at the University of Virginia, addresses an urgent need in academia: interdisciplinary and expansive examination of the broad issues and challenges facing domestic and global democracy.  To achieve our goals, we have developed a constellation of three-year, rotating group Labs that promote research, teaching, and engagement with public affairs.   Once a Lab ends its affiliation with the Democracy Initiative, we hope that it will be able to continue its work, independently, and encourage philanthropic efforts to achieve that goal. 

Today, we are announcing the call for new rotating Lab proposals.  Proposals are due on October 1, 2020, and our goal is to launch new three-year Labs in August 2021 (see calendar, below).

In fall 2020, the Democracy Initiative will also prepare to convene a permanent Core Lab that attends to the principles undergirding democracy.  The Core Lab will serve as an enduring humanistic, philosophical, and artistic foundation, as well as an institutional repository for the vital, time-limited work that takes place among the rotating Labs.  The Core Lab will be a connecting hub among the various individual Labs, facilitating inter-Lab collaborations, and seeking synergies in research, teaching, and public engagement. 


We welcome proposals that (1) identify challenges to and within democracy, (2) advance scholarship, (3) articulate promising solutions or important next steps, and (4) strive to have impact in and beyond the academy.

Successful proposals will be selected based on how well they address contemporary or enduring challenges to democracy; leverage existing faculty expertise; help train graduate students and serve the undergraduate population; and develop an actionable plan for public engagement.  The proposals may raise important conceptual questions that have policy implications.


  • MAY 2020:                                             Announce Call
  • WEDNESDAY, JUNE 3, 2020:              Information Session #1 via Zoom
  • AUGUST 2020:                                     Information Session #2 via Zoom/Date TBD
  • THURSDAY, OCTOBER 1, 2020:         Call for Proposals Closes and Review Begins
  • FEBRUARY 2021:                                New Labs announced
  • MARCH-AUGUST 2021:                      Planning period (grant supported) for new Labs
  • AUGUST 2021:                                     New Labs launch


Proposals should include:

  • An abstract (250 words or less) summarizing the proposed Lab, including the challenge to or within democracy that it seeks to address.
  • A description of the project’s broad research, teaching, and public affairs/engagement objectives. Please be specific in describing which of the conditions for a healthy democracy the Lab intends to address (listed above).  If the Lab doesn’t fall directly under one of the conditions, please describe its relevance to the Initiative.
  • A description of the importance of the project, particularly given the current environment, or anticipated challenges to or within democracy. 
  • A statement explaining how the project intervenes in current debates or generates new understandings relevant to scholars, practitioners, policy makers, or the private sector.
  • A discussion of how the Lab will achieve its objectives. There are many ways to make your case, including proof of concept, previous research, or relevant case studies.
  • A statement explaining how the project draws on contributions from more than one department or school and contributes to the strength of research and teaching programs in more than one unit.
  • A research, teaching, and public affairs/engagement plan that describes the proposed activities that will take place during each of the years that the Lab is funded. The project should be designed to be completed by June 2024 at the latest. In the unusual case that there is a critical reason to seek more than three years of funding, you can explain why here.  The plan should include:
    • A projected timeline (with a detailed schedule for the three-year window).
    • A list of current University of Virginia participants (e.g. faculty “fellows,” post-docs, and graduate students who may be involved in the project, and their potential roles).  Because we seek to enhance doctoral education at the University of Virginia through our investment in these initiatives, please list the names, departments and academic backgrounds of two to four doctoral students who will be formally affiliated with and partially funded by the proposed project.
    • The proposed contributions to undergraduate education, through formal classes, Forums or teaching Engagements, as well as through the research and public engagement activity.
    • Proposed partners based at the University of Virginia and in other sectors (for example, the private and NGO sectors; local, state, and federal governments; and/or international institutions).  Please share how and when partners will be engaged in the work of the Lab.
    • A description of communications objectives and strategies (both in terms of research dissemination and public engagement).
    • If relevant, plans to engage the greater Charlottesville community in the life of the Lab.
    • Anticipated plans to use the newly available Darden School of Business space in Rosslyn, Virginia or other Washington, D.C. based policy/convening/engagement entities.
  • Short (2-3 page) CVs for all current UVA faculty that are part of the proposal.
  • Bibliography.
  • Letters of support from the chair or dean of all units contributing to the project.
  • Budget request and narrative.
    • See additional details on budget requirements below.
  • Point of contact if there are additional questions from the selection committee.

The Lab proposal may include a proposal for a tenure-track hire -- if approved by and consistent with the relevant department’s hiring plan -- to bolster the Lab’s research, teaching, and public engagement activities, and to build strength across department or school lines.  Please note, however, there is no commitment by the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences to hire per the request. Accordingly, proposals should not rest on additional faculty lines.


The A&S Dean’s Office will provide a budget template.  Please consider the following guidelines on typical budget items as well as additional important notes.

Budgets should be in the range of $1 million to $1.5 million over the three-year period and may include:

  • In addition to support for participating faculty members’ salaries during the term of the Lab can include:
    • Teaching buyouts to provide faculty leaders and faculty fellows with the time to devote to this project.  Teaching buyouts must reflect the departmental-approved, actual, and comprehensive costs of Lab faculty’s replacements for teaching, including salary and fringe benefits.  Please note the department will need to include the costs of any faculty replacements in the curriculum budget planning portion of the budget process.
    • Summer wages for nine-month faculty who will have significant responsibilities that extend into the summer
  • Potential faculty hires -- if approved and consistent with the relevant department’s hiring plans per previous notes.
  • Visiting scholar(s)
  • Faculty Fellows 
  • Postdoctoral Research Associates, who will have teaching responsibilities.  Please note that the Department will need to include any Post-Doc courses in the curriculum budget planning portion of the budget process.
  • Graduate fellowship(s) for current PhD students who will work in the Lab in lieu of serving as a TA for one or two years.  Please coordinate with the department and the graduate school to confirm student availability.
  • Wages for undergraduate students who work in the Lab
  • Wages for a graduate student who provides administrative support
  • The costs of supporting the Lab’s undergraduate teaching component
    • If you plan to teach a Forum as part of your Lab’s undergraduate curricular component, list costs, including accurate backfill for departments.
  • Research expenses
  • Convening and public engagement expenses
  • Administrative and travel expenses


The Democracy Labs are a critical piece of the Initiative as a whole.  While the operation and research direction of the Lab will fall directly under the purview of the Lab faculty, there will be routine “update” meetings with Initiative leadership twice per semester.  The meetings ensure that Labs are well-supported and facilitate collaboration and clear communication across the Initiative.

Labs will be required to provide year-end written evaluation of their work, along with requests, on an as-needed-basis, to repurpose funds as Lab work evolves during the three-year funding cycle.  In the reports, Labs should indicate their progress toward the objectives described in their proposals and provide a detailed assessment of the ways in which the Lab or Lab members have contributed to the Democracy Initiative’s three areas of impact: research, teaching, and public engagement.  

Labs will be required to follow UVA branding guidelines.  The Initiative is working in concert with the UVA communications team to allow for appropriate individual Lab identities that simultaneously share a common look and feel with the Initiative as a whole.


The Initiative will provide an “in kind” Lab manager to support the day-to-day operation of Lab work.  The manager is an Initiative employee who will work with two rotating Labs, simultaneously.  The individual will facilitate hiring and the HR relationship generally; manage the Lab budget, as well as process financial transactions via Initiative finance staff; maintain clear communication between the Lab and the Initiative, as well as among other rotating Labs; advise and facilitate public programming; advise, coordinate, and facilitate communications support functions between A&S and Initiative marketing and communications teams; and generally, serve as an advisor to Lab faculty leadership.

The Initiative will provide additional staff support including a general communications advisor and a finance generalist.  The Miller Center of Public Affairs will provide marketing, communications and event support for a select number of agreed upon major events.  These services do not relieve the Lab faculty’s responsibilities in these critical areas but are meant to serve as additional avenues of support.


  • Please limit proposals to 10 pages, plus letters of support, work cited, and CVs.
  • All components of the proposal should be saved in one document (either Word or PDF).
  • When drafting the proposal, remember that the selection committee will be comprised of peers who may or may not be experts in your field. The proposal should be compelling and the challenge to democracy that the Lab will address clear and straightforward.
  • The selection committee may be in touch with more specific questions regarding the proposal.
  • Proposals not funded in this round of applications may be revised and re-submitted in subsequent years.
  • If you have a concept in mind for a Lab but are unsure if it meets the criteria above, please be proactive and ask for assistance. The goal is to bring as many ideas to the fore as possible.

Submit a proposal here.

For further information contact:

Ellen Ochs
Democracy Initiative Chief of Staff