Date March 1, 2020
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Driven by data: Brown boosts its economic department

Bolstered by faculty specializing in sophisticated analysis and a $25 million gift, Brown's economics department confronts pressing social issues.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Educational opportunity. Economic mobility. Global warming. Mortality risks and planning for the future. Political polarization and social media. Interest rates and bank lending. How cellphone use can help determine a person’s creditworthiness.

These are just a few of the subjects of recent research from Brown’s growing group of data-driven economists. “There is a revolution in data,” said Brown Professor and Chair of Economics Anna Aizer. 

The explosion of access to big data worldwide has profoundly affected research in many academic fields, economics included.

“We have a faculty doing work that is on the frontier,” Aizer said, and that work is helping raise the profile and impact of Brown’s department. One professor, for instance, is studying the allocation of public housing and collaborating with housing councils in London to implement a better system; another is helping cities around the United States find ways to reduce income inequality. 

Building on Brown’s long-time strengths in economics — including development, growth and game theory — the University has in the past six years recruited an enhanced cadre of faculty in applied microeconomics. That’s the area most closely tied to data-intense research, and is a branch of economics that takes theories and methodologies and applies them to questions of individual behavior and societal outcomes.

By examining topics with real-world relevance, Aizer said, “Many of these projects get at fundamental questions of opportunity and well-being. This research has the potential to change policy, both here and abroad, because the results reveal clear policy implications.” 

The department got a major boost in April 2019 with the announcement of a $25 million gift, its largest ever, from Orlando Bravo, a private equity investor and Class of 1992 alumnus. More than half of the gift from the Bravo Family Foundation, $15 million, will launch the Orlando Bravo Center for Economic Research so the department can expand and enhance its research and training, and the other $10 million will fund two new endowed chairs and spur faculty recruitment. 

“ This incredibly generous gift will power years of scholarship that propels positive change. ”

Christina H. Paxson Brown University President

Brown President Christina H. Paxson, herself an economist and a member of the department, pointed to the power of economics in improving human welfare. “This incredibly generous gift will power years of scholarship that propels positive change," Paxson said, "and it will enable our students to have a hand in conducting original economics research alongside internationally respected faculty.” 

‘Allow us to do more’

The economics department and its research are seen as on the rise by a number of measures, including rankings of published papers and increased enrollments. Brown’s place among U.S. economics departments in the widely used Research Papers in Economics rankings — highly dependent on the research output of faculty — has gone from being in the range of 16th to 19th in the country six years ago to now eighth.

“A gift like this will allow us to do more, and do it better, "Aizer said. "The creation of the Bravo Center will support the department by building on existing strengths of the department, advancing faculty research and student training.” 

Based on a recent external review of the department, plans have been made to increase the size of the faculty in the next few years from the current 30 to about 40, a move expected to have significant positive effects on both research and teaching.

Already, faculty recruitment is making a large difference in research. Professor John Friedman is one example.

After earning undergraduate and doctoral economics degrees at Harvard University, a postdoctoral fellowship at University of California, Berkeley, teaching at Harvard’s Kennedy School, and being a special assistant to the president for economic policy at the White House, Friedman was ready to find his long-term academic home in 2015. He came to Brown.

Friedman, whose research on education and economic opportunity using massive data sets has received national and international attention, said the decision “was really about the commitment Brown is making to empirical social science research.”

A large number of faculty was hired just before him, he joined with another sizable group, and he’s seen the commitment continue. Friedman credits his Brown colleagues for significantly helping elevate his research through dialogue and collaborations.

Friedman’s research involves enormous data sets, such as the CLIMB initiative, which looks at 30 million students nationally over time to look for ways to increase access and economic mobility. His Opportunity Atlas project is using millions of data records to see which U.S. neighborhoods offer children the best chance to rise out of poverty. At a 2019 public forum on the efforts to reduce Providence’s income inequality and increase social mobility, Mayor Jorge Elorza praised Friedman’s research and said it had already influenced city planning.

The surge in available data sets for economists has led to increased opportunities, but also greater costs. Accessing data almost always comes with expenses, often tens of thousands of dollars, and the Bravo research center will especially help graduate students and junior faculty who aren’t as able to access large grants to pay for data.

“Money at the right time can go a long way,” Friedman said, and will help Brown “compete at the highest levels” for faculty members and research dollars. 

Focus on high-visibility issues

Many others in Brown’s expanded applied microeconomics group are also focusing on high-visibility issues.

Professors Justine Hastings and Jesse Shapiro have researched the shopping habits of recipients of  SNAP — Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, generally known as food stamps. They found, contrary to expected economic behavior, that SNAP benefits increase overall food spending by about 50 percent of the benefit’s value. Shapiro's research has also examined the causes of rising political polarization across the globe.  

Professor Emily Oster has studied how mortality risks influence people’s choices about education and other future-oriented investments, and found people often choose not to learn about their health future. She also recently published "Cribsheet," a data-driven guide to parenting young children and New York Times bestseller. 

Daniel Bjorkegren, an assistant professor of economics, received wide attention for his study showing that patterns in phone usage can predict who will default on loans, and Assistant Professor Bryce Steinberg studied water quality in the developing world and found that imperfect infrastructure burdens the poor in ways that go far beyond obvious health consequences.

One of the newest faculty members in applied microeconomics and Class of 2013 alumnus Neil Thakral came back to Brown in 2018 after earning his Ph.D. at Harvard. Thakral’s current research is focusing on the allocation of public housing, testing ways to avoid inefficiencies that have long plagued the tenant selection process. Housing choices are central to decisions people make determining their economic and social stability; he is using detailed data from Pittsburgh to analyze the choice process and is working with housing councils in London to design better allocation systems.

‘Put us on the map’

Thakral, an assistant professor of economics with a joint appointment at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, said, like Friedman and others, that what made him want to teach and do research at Brown is the quality of the faculty, including those hired in recent years. “This group has propelled the Brown economics department to the forefront,” he said, “It put us on the map.”

Gauti Eggertsson came to Brown in 2013 after eight years of conducting research at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. At the Federal Reserve, Eggertsson gave advice to the bank’s president on setting interest rates and other policies. His research at Brown has centered on monetary policy, including analysis of the 2008 financial crisis. 

A willingness to embrace nontraditional areas of economic research sets Brown's economics department apart from others.

When she came to Brown in 2003, Aizer knew the choice of her first research area would be crucial. She wanted to explore domestic violence as a subject, but wondered what her colleagues’ reaction would be. She was relieved when a senior colleague was extremely supportive, and she has continued to do work in this area for many years. More recently she has been studying the intergenerational transmission of poverty, including the impact of welfare on children’s outcomes using a data set she built of 80,000 children whose mothers had applied for welfare. 

The department’s high level of collaboration, both within and outside of Brown, has shaped its success by bringing different dimensions to projects. The faculty have been active in many partnerships within Brown, including the Warren Alpert Medical School and School of Public Health, and at many Brown centers and institutes, such as the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs and the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society. “Economics is a very collaborative discipline,” Aizer said. 

Brown’s economics department dates back to 1828 and is one of the University’s oldest academic units, housed for more than a century now in the distinctive Venetian Gothic-style Robinson Hall.

While the cluster of hires in recent years in the data-mining areas of applied microeconomics have offered a significant boost, Aizer said the department has also increased its strength in areas such as game theory and long-run growth. Glenn Loury, for instance, is a prominent public intellectual and applied theorist who has published research on a number of subjects, including the importance of social capital.

Economic theorist Teddy Mekonnen, whose research focuses on information economics and mechanism design, joined the department in 2019. An assistant professor of economics, Mekonnen came to Brown after a postdoctoral fellowship at California Institute of Technology, where he worked on research showing that, against conventional wisdom, people newly enrolled in health insurance searching for primary care physicians achieved better outcomes if they randomly sampled the doctors available in their networks than if they screened doctors based on published rankings.

The success of the department’s graduates is another indicator of its larger impact through research. “Scholars who earned their doctorates in the Brown economics department are found throughout the top ranks of university economics departments in the United States and abroad, as well as in the Federal Reserve system, World Bank, IMF and the central banks of many foreign countries,” said Professor David Weil, a former department chair and Class of 1982 alumnus.

Alumni well represented

Distinguished undergraduate alumni of the department — including Janet Yellen, chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve from 2014 to 2018 and Class of 1967 alumna — are well represented in the top ranks of academia, finance, business and public policy, Weil said.

While the department is expected to increase faculty by about eight in the next few years, it plans to preserve its essential tight-knit character, emphasizing integrated scholarship. 

For the applied microeconomics group, that means that when its regular seminar convenes, everyone in that area joins in, including faculty and graduate students. In larger economics departments at other universities, there are separate microeconomics seminars broken out by subject area.

At Brown, it’s seen that unity is better, maximizing interaction between different specialties and leading to new insights and collaborations.  “You get to interact with a broader set of people,” Thakral said. 

Friedman echoed the sentiment: “Bringing together more people and ideas helps.”

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