Political scientist In Song Kim receives the 2021 Levitan Prize

In Song Kim, associate professor of political science at MIT, has been awarded the 2021 Levitan Prize. This award, presented each year by a faculty committee, empowers a member of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS) faculty with funding to enable research in their field. With an award of $30,000, this annual prize continues to support substantial projects.

The 2021 award was announced by Melissa Nobles, the Kenan Sahin Dean of SHASS, who writes, “Professor Kim’s work in past years has significantly broadened access to and perspectives on social science data, helping to make legislative and policy-making processes more transparent to citizens. I am excited to see how his new project furthers the work of strengthening democracy.”

A new theory of trade

The Levitan Prize will enable Kim to move forward with an ambitious book project entitled “Trade Politics with Firms and Products.” The book “focuses on the increasing granularity in trade policies around the globe” and how that change has “fundamentally changed domestic and international trade politics.”
“Representation is one of the fundamental pillars of democracy,” writes Kim, “ensuring citizens equal rights to influence public policy-making processes. However, policy-making both at home and abroad is dominated by individuals with substantial economic resources and by large multinational firms.”

Kim plans to introduce a new theory of trade liberalization that explains how “product differentiation in economic markets leads to firm-level lobbying in political markets.” In his research and in the “Trade Politics” project, Kim will use the Levitan Prize in part to collect and analyze more than 5.7 billion observations of trade and policy data from over the past three decades. Additionally, he plans to analyze 75 million lobbying reports and campaign contributions in the past 20 years.

Open-source software and classroom impact

“To the best of my knowledge,” Kim adds, “this is the first book that provides a ‘big data’ analysis of contemporary trade policymaking, facilitating not only academic research of trade with a new unit of analysis but also public awareness of product-specific trade negotiations, such as the current China-U.S. trade dispute.”

In addition to the book, Kim will also be developing open-source software to facilitate access to the data he will be using. The project, exploring massive datasets describing fine-grained political activities, will have a role inside MIT classrooms as well: the associated research study aims to train MIT SHASS undergraduate and graduate students to meet the interdisciplinary challenges that the project’s objectives demand. For example, Kim teaches how computational methods can be used to understand various social phenomena and policymaking in his undergraduate class 17.835 (Machine Learning and Data Science in Politics).

Making it simple to follow the path of money in politics

Kim arrived at MIT as an assistant professor of political science in 2014, directly after earning his PhD in politics at Princeton University. In 2016, he began to work as a faculty affiliate with the Center for Statistics within the MIT Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS).

Kim has worked in recent years to use his research to demystify the complex financial webs of Washington lobbying and to make those connections both visible and comprehensible to the public at large. In 2018, he launched the massive public database LobbyView.org. The site draws on over 1 million public records of congressional lobbying, delivering results through a streamlined interface that vastly reduces the barrier of access to lobbying information that is, by law, already public.

For instance, simply typing “Apple” into the search bar brings up a detailed history of the company’s lobbying around corporate taxes and foreign regulations. In January 2020, LobbyView was awarded the International Political Economy Society’s best new dataset award.

The results of Kim’s database work, which will be advanced by the Levitan Prize, along with its web interface, will be made fully accessible to the public, to enable other researchers to interact with and export data to fuel their own work into the future.

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