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Economics Training Strengthens the Connection Between Science and Policymaking

AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows (STPF) with training in economics say they can bring an important and different point of view that helps policymakers make better decisions. While social scientists are a minority among the fellows, they are in demand. The STPF orientation includes an exercise that draws upon economic and social science, emphasizing the importance of different ways of thinking, said Shubha Ghosh, a 2014-15 judicial branch fellow who has a J.D. and a Ph.D. in economics.

Shubha Ghosh

“Economics can supplement the natural sciences and help people understand the implications of policy. You need to have a sense of the costs and trade-offs a policy will require, and economics can assess those effects,” said Ghosh, who is a law professor at Syracuse University, and director of the Syracuse Intellectual Property Law Institute and the university’s Technology Commercialization Curricular Program.

Economists and social scientists can also offer a broader perspective, says Lynn Khadiagala, who has a multi-disciplinary background in political science, international studies and economics. Before becoming a fellow at the Department of State from 2003-2005, she studied how women in Uganda use the judicial system to assert property rights and protect their access to land under different land tenure systems. “Because of my work at the intersection of several social science disciplines, I ask different types of questions and tend to explore connections between things that may not appear to be related at first.”

For example, during her fellowship, Khadiagala pointed out that U.S. support for an HIV/AIDS prevention program in Africa that encouraged women to “just say no” to unsafe sex was based on the assumption that women had the power to do so.

Lynn Khadiagala

“If women were not able to exert independent control over property, there was little they could do to resist a family’s control over the rest of their lives and bodies,” Khadiagala said. She pitched her argument to the State Department leadership, who as a result created an inter-agency working group focusing on the issue, which eventually led to a new position focused on women’s economic advancement at the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Khadiagala is now a program evaluator for the Department of Agriculture, which is a position that many social scientists take on in the federal government, she said. While natural scientists tend to be specialized and not always comfortable making assertions beyond the scope of their work, she said, “as program evaluators, we ask our science colleagues questions they do not always want to answer, like “what is the public value of their work” or “how do they measure success?”

Anne Alexander | University of Wyoming

While economists study the large-scale interactions of markets, they also analyze the choices individuals make regarding buying, selling and producing goods and services. “I think economists are an interesting mash-up of sociology, psychology, brain science, and behavioral science with a dash of math. So we have a lot of systems thinking,” said Anne Alexander, a resources economist who was an executive branch fellow at the Department of State in 2002-03 in the Bureau of African Affairs.

As a fellow, Alexander helped make African nations with extractive industries like oil or mines be more transparent about the profits those resources generate, so that the money would benefit all the citizens of that country and not just those with political power. In working with diplomats, she observed that they also work to predict and influence human behavior.

“They think about everything from the smallest thing like the time of day you’re having the conversation to being a good host, like bringing someone water. Those things seem small, but they’re not—they’re how you get things done,” said Alexander, who is now the associate vice provost of academic affairs for undergraduate education at the University of Wyoming.

Khadiagala says she continues to challenge her science colleagues with new approaches for measuring the value of the agency’s investments in agriculture and food research, education, and extension at the land-grant universities. “We do not always have all of the data that we need. My role is to ask enough exploratory questions to figure out a method for demonstrating that value. We live in a complex world so involving people from multiple disciplines is always better. Collaboration with my science colleagues is key to the evaluation process.”

Fellows of all backgrounds are valuable because they bring in fresh ideas and ask, “’Why are you doing it that way?’ and ‘Have you considered this or that?’” Khadiagala said, adding that she meets with the new STPF fellows at her agency each year to get “reinvigorated.”

“I’ve been a huge proponent of the [STPF] program for that reason,” she said.