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2022 Bridging the Divide Grant Awarded to Iowa State Researchers Investigating Forced Labor in Supply Chains

By Caitlin Ware, Iowa State University Office of the Vice President for Research

Posted Nov 9, 2022

A pair of Iowa State University researchers has been selected to receive funding from the fifth iteration of the Bridging the Divide seed grant program to explore ways to detect and eliminate the use of forced and slave labor in supply-chain networks.

The Bridging the Divide program aims to holistically address societal problems by fostering collaboration among researchers in design, arts, humanities, and social sciences and researchers in STEM disciplines. The program is administered by the Iowa State University Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR). Dean’s professor of supply chain management Frank Montabon and Building a World of Difference Faculty Fellow and associate professor of aerospace engineering Kristin Rozier have received the annual award for 2022. They will receive $25,000 a year for two years to study the feasibility of using formal methods —a set of mathematical techniques that can prove the existence or absence of complex, temporal patterns without access to large data sets — to help trace the presence of forced and slave labor practices in supply chains.

Traditionally, most research on this topic has focused on either compliance to reporting regulations or the factors that lead to an individual getting caught up in human trafficking. Montabon and Rozier are more interested in answering a different set of critical questions: how do these harmful networks operate, and how can they be disabled? But a limited amount of research studies focused on data-driven detection of forced labor, and a resulting lack of available data sets pertaining to the subject matter, make the use of traditional machine learning techniques ill-suited for identifying new types of patterns that distinguish forced or slave labor in supply chains.

To combat this challenge, Montabon and Rozier’s research project will focus on combining their respective expertise in supply chain sustainability and using formal methods in lieu of large data sets to create an open-source formula that can be applied by company managers to identify potential pain points in their supply chains. Formal methods have never been used to analyze supply chains before, making the duo’s research a novel approach to the National Science Foundation (NSF)-identified critical issue in human health and safety.

“Companies do not exactly announce that they employ forced labor or human trafficking in their supply chains,” Montabon said. “In fact, most firms have told us they cannot even see that many steps back in the chain. But the reality is that there is a wide variety of products that involve forced, or even slave labor. And for companies, there is a delicate balance between keeping raw material prices low, and not wanting to end up on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. If you understand how someone is measured and rewarded, you will understand their behavior.”

With Bridging the Divide funding in hand, the pair has begun the process of putting together benchmark datasets for the topic of human trafficking, which will be used to evaluate the analysis techniques they plan to use. During the first year of institutional funding, Montabon and Rozier will also characterize activities related to human trafficking, such as companies in a certain region that change their names frequently or change their addresses near the times when local laws change. In the second year of the project, the collected data will be used to model realistic examples of human trafficking in supply chain networks, followed by using formal methods to analyze patterns of potential illegal activity identifiers. Montabon and Rozier also plan to produce at least at least three journal publications based on their findings and generate sufficient preliminary work to be able to compose a larger funding proposal to the NSF or other government-funded program.

“Some of society’s biggest problems are interdisciplinary, and it is between difficult and impossible to solve them with only one set of approaches; our project is no exception,” Rozier said. “We are trying to determine when forced and slave labor may be occurring, and we are using a truly innovative and powerful technique to do so. We are using formal methods to make things safer, to make people’s lives better. This is huge. It’s about our world.”

Montabon and Rozier anticipate that by the end of their Bridging the Divide project, their proposed technique could hold the potential to address other societal issues, such as trafficking pirated goods or virtual products, safety recalls, safety violations, and smuggling.

“The Bridging the Divide seed grant is a wonderful program that fosters convergence by bringing together divergent approaches and perspectives to address major challenges that impact our society,” said Vice President for Research Peter Dorhout. “Forced and slave labor is a scourge around the world. We commend Doctors Montabon and Rozier for identifying an innovative solution that leverages advanced data systems to efficiently detect and eliminate forced labor from our global supply-chain systems.”

The Bridging the Divide seed grant program, offered in partnership with the Center for Excellence in the Arts and Humanities (CEAH), is open to all Iowa State University full-time tenured or tenure‐eligible faculty. More information about the application, review, and award process can be found here.