PIIRS interdisciplinary research community to explore global systemic risk

Sept. 10, 2013, 11 a.m.

An interdisciplinary group of Princeton University scholars working to understand better the nature of risk has been selected by the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies (PIIRS) as its 2014-16 research community. The community, "Global Systemic Risk," is composed of 21 core faculty members from more than a dozen disciplines. It is designed to push this emerging field forward.

Funding from PIIRS, up to $750,000 over the three-year period, will support research, conferences and course development.

The research community's coordinator is Miguel Centeno, the Musgrave Professor of Sociology, a professor of sociology and international affairs, and chair of the Department of Sociology.

Centeno, whose work focuses on the creation and maintenance of collective order, explains global systemic risk as a result of the complex systems through which international transactions flow. Examples include globalized financial systems, energy exploration and production, electricity transmission, computer networks, health care, food and water supplies, transportation networks, and commerce. 

The research community is concerned with the risk of emergent disruptions in global systems — like the weaknesses in interdependent financial institutions that led to the recent financial crisis — caused by the interaction of large numbers of autonomous agents.

PIIRS systemic risk

The complex international transportation system, represented by a visualization of global airline traffic, is one area of interest for the research community "Global Systemic Risk." (Image: Manish Nag; data source: openflights.org)

"Tangible risks due to the interdependence of these massive global interactions and structures have grown exponentially since the 1970s, and they threaten global political, economic and financial systems that affect citizens of every nation," Centeno said.

In announcing the research community, PIIRS Acting Director Stephen Kotkin said, "It is thrilling to see the wide-angle, multidisciplinary research that PIIRS facilitates be applied to globalization, and not just to the wealth of benefits that interconnections generate but also to the risks." Kotkin is also the John P. Birkelund '52 Professor in History and International Affairs.

Engaging with colleagues in a variety of disciplines who are working on critical issues related to global risk is central to the research community, Centeno said. "To begin, all of us wonder at the successful construction of a very complex system. But looking at something this big requires many sub-specializations and interdisciplinary cooperation," he said.

Members of the research community work in computer science, economics, engineering, finance, history, mathematics, operations research, philosophy, physical sciences, psychology, public policy and sociology.

The research community's inaugural public event will be a lecture on the financial crisis by Gary Gorton, the Frederick Frank Class of 1954 Professor of Management at the Yale School of Management. Gorton, whose research focuses on stock markets, banks, corporate control issues and asset pricing theory, has consulted for U.S. Federal Reserve banks and the Bank of England, among others. The event will be held at noon Friday, Oct. 11, in Burr Hall, Room 219.

Outreach for the coming year includes public events, monthly community meetings, support for existing courses related to the issue area and undergraduate course development, and a meeting with faculty members from Columbia and Dartmouth universities who are working on related topics.

In 2014-15, the community will support up to four visiting fellowships and postdoctoral associate positions. Activities planned for that year and for 2015-16 include a forum for doctoral candidates, a symposium where colleagues present ongoing research findings and where group members undertake joint writing projects, and exploring the creation of a credit-bearing course.

"The study of risk is an emerging discipline that has the potential to become an important and influential academic and policy field," Centeno said. "We hope to create a cohesive and comprehensive framework to push it forward."

About PIIRS research communities

The PIIRS research community initiative was established in spring 2011. It provides funding over three years to groups of Princeton faculty in support of research, teaching and scholarly dialogue on a common theme of broad interest within international studies that cuts across disciplines and world regions.

The annual deadline for Princeton faculty to submit research community preproposals is Feb. 15. Information is available at www.princeton.edu/piirs/funding/faculty/research-communities.