Northeastern and partner universities awarded prestigious NSF research traineeship to study impacts of technology platforms, such as Uber, Lyft

person tapping the lyft app on their phone
Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Northeastern is poised to contribute a significant body of research toward a greater understanding of the sweeping effects digital platforms such as Uber, Airbnb and Venmo are having on society, while also training an underrepresented generation of students to solve problems across disciplines.

A $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation will help Northeastern accomplish the task. The money is part of the NSF’s highly prestigious “national research traineeship” (NRT) program, which provides support to students in “research-based master’s and doctoral degree programs” who are working in “high priority interdisciplinary or convergent research areas.” 

The funds will support 28 Ph.D. “traineeships” at Northeastern over the course of five years with the goal of helping students develop the “skills, knowledge and competencies” relevant to their respective careers, while also producing targeted research addressing real-world problems. 

headshot of Ozlem Ergun
Northeastern professor Ozlem Ergun, COE distinguished professor and associate chair for graduate affairs, mechanical and industrial engineering. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Another facet of the grant is its focus on supporting underrepresented researchers and institutions. As such, the award will also enable Northeastern to partner with Hampton University, an HBCU, and the University of Houston, a Hispanic-Serving Institution, to support student trainees across all three universities, and develop an engineering graduate degree program at the latter. 

The award is the result of several years of collaboration among a large interdisciplinary team, including faculty from engineering, D’Amore McKim School of Business, Khoury College of Computer Science, the School of Law, Department of Economics and the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs. 

“The interdisciplinarity of this initiative will expand critically important analysis of the social justice implications of rapidly changing platforms,” says Jennie Stephens, dean’s professor of sustainability science & policy, who is helping to oversee the effort. “And by diversifying who is trained to be involved in the development and regulation of evolving platforms, this research training program is positioned to have big societal impact.”

Landing an NRT award—considered by academics to be the gold standard for training grants—is a first for Northeastern. 

“They’re highly competitive and very hard to get,” says Ozlem Ergun, COE Distinguished Professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at Northeastern, who is also overseeing Northeastern’s proposal for the research funding. “This is the third time we’ve tried.”  

Ergun says that program administrators hope that the associated training offered at the University of Houston and Hampton University would produce prospective students capable of pursuing postdoctoral work at any of the three universities. 

“The NRT program addresses workforce development, emphasizing broad participation and institutional capacity building needs in graduate education,” the foundation’s website states. “The program encourages proposals that involve strategic collaborations with the private sector, non-governmental organizations, government agencies, national laboratories, field stations, teaching and learning centers, informal science centers, and academic partners.”

Ergun and her collaborators note that by 2025, more than $60 trillion per year—or roughly 30% of global revenue—will be mediated by digital platforms. “They’ve disrupted multiple industries, upended labor economics and practices, and fundamentally transformed resource management, asset allocation and market design,” they write.  

“There’s a lot of unease in the social sciences—and from a public policy and regulatory perspective—because there are actually a lot of negative impacts” associated with these platforms, Ergun says. 

“So the focus of this proposal is to create a training program that addresses the needs of these digital platforms to kind of be profitable, to stay competitive, and to better understand the changes these platforms are sort of imposing on the society—be it in public services, the delivery of social services, resource allocation, even the future of work,” Ergun adds.

Ergun’s interest in the program stems from her work designing and managing large-scale and decentralized networks. She has experience working with such systems “from an optimization point of view.”

Using ride-hail companies as an example, Ergun offered some questions that researchers might explore. What are their impacts on the public transportation systems? How can they better collaborate with those systems? How should regulators understand the relationship between Uber and its workers—as employees or independent contractors? Indeed, the latter question has generated considerable debate among labor rights activists, drivers and the executives of ride-share companies—particularly as the companies insist on treating their workers as independent contractors. Doing so lets them bypass laws in some states requiring them to provide protections and benefits. 

Academic interest in the app-based platforms varies across disciplines. Ergun says she hopes the NRT funding will spur more collaboration between the social sciences and STEM fields in particular, where polarization on the topic is evident.  

“In the social sciences and related regulatory environments, they’re [the platforms] usually viewed with much more pessimism,” Ergun says. 

But in engineering, technology and design spaces, the platforms and their companies are held in much higher regard, she says.  

“While digital platforms have democratized provision and access to services and products with low entry and transaction costs, the larger impact on society is not fully understood,” Northeastern’s proposal reads. “It is critical that the developers of new platform technologies no longer simply be trained as engineers and computer scientists, and that policy makers and regulators must understand the ecosystems around digital platforms.”

“Funding for Ph.D. students represents the bedrock of our entire research enterprise and landing our first NRT is a huge step forward,” says David Madigan, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Northeastern.

Tanner Stening is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at Follow him on Twitter @tstening90.