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The Paul Douglas Institute (PDI) is a nonpartisan, public policy think tank run by University of Chicago undergraduates passionate about practical and rigorous research. Named after Senator Paul H. Douglas, a former U.S. Senator and professor of economics at the University, the Institute partners with policymakers and community organizations to pursue solution-oriented research projects that make a positive impact on the wider community.

Since its founding last year by students from the University of Chicago Democracy Initiative, the PDI has grown significantly in scope and size; its first research papers were published in February, and it is now a federally registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit, a move that has given the organization the legal structure to conduct fundraising and partner outreach on campus and beyond.

“We support organizations and individuals that depend on rigorous research to pursue their missions, and knowing that our work is going to the hands of real-world change agents motivates us to be rigorous and thorough,” said the PDI's directors, third-years Zarek Drozda, Teddy Knox, Vanessa Ma, Rimsha Nazeer, and fourth-year Lily Li. They believe that PDI is unique at UChicago because it allows undergraduates to carry out the full range of a public policy project, from conceiving an idea to publishing research findings.

Past studies have targeted issues such as rent control, property tax caps, and food deserts, while partners have included The Heartland Alliance, Common Cause Illinois, and Illinois State Senators. In March, PDI partnered with the Chicago Sierra Club for their “Ready for 100%” initiative, which aims to accelerate the transition to a 100% clean and renewable community from the bottom-up. The research group had the opportunity to attend volunteer meetings, receive feedback from the Sierra Club’s national office, and learn from coalition members about how their report can account for systematically disadvantaged neighborhoods in Chicago.

Currently, PDI members are completing a multi-part project for the People’s Lobby, an advocacy organization in Chicago that is building a progressive and globalist international policy toolkit for the 2020 congressional and presidential policy platforms. Student researchers are also working with the Chicago chapter of Food & Water Watch to develop a demographic breakdown of the city according to socioeconomic parameters.

“We view PDI as a necessary bridge between academia and real issues in our community,” said the directors, whose experience working with policymakers has both strengthened what they learned within the classroom and taught them valuable, real-life policy lessons they could not have learned elsewhere.

We at Chicago Studies look forward to future collaborations with PDI, a platform through which students interested in the Chicago Studies program can take part in community-driven research. We also look forward to incorporating PDI’s past and future research projects into our new Research Portal, which spotlights Chicago-focused research. Integrating UChicago’s strong research-oriented culture with the drive to create meaningful impact on the local community, both PDI and Chicago Studies share a passion to engage in Chicago.


Email to discuss partnership opportunities; if you are a current student interested in getting involved with PDI, contact

October 19, 2018