August, 1 2022
Through the Statistics for Public Policy and Economics for Public Policy courses, which are part of the MPA’s summer sequence 1, students are equipped with the analytical and quantitative skills they will need both in the program and in their careers. “We give them a complete semester’s worth of material in an intensive fashion,” says Assistant Professor of Economics at Brown University Jesse Bruhn. IJC Assistant Professor of Economics and International and Public Affairs Bryce Steinberg, ‘09 Honors, team taught the course this summer with Bruhn.
“Professor Steinberg and Professor Bruhn are accomplished scholars, dedicated to bringing evidence to bear on policy and practice,” says MPA Program Director and Associate Professor of Political Science Susan Moffitt. “We are fortunate to have them as core contributors to the MPA teaching team.”
Bruhn adds, “By team-teaching the course’s first sequence, we get the students learning and thinking right away in a manner that bridges both theory and empirical knowledge [that] they can leverage in their subsequent careers.”
Weekly policy labs apply economics to real world scenarios
In weekly policy labs, student groups are tasked with developing recommendations to a hypothetical governor based on data. Their analyses address issues such as the impacts of taxing soft drinks and how to develop subsidizing housing policies to ensure access to those most in need.
“I didn’t know I’d be excited about the policy labs… we get to apply economics to real world scenarios,” says Marzia Giambertoni ’23, who graduated from Brown with a dual concentration in International & Public Affairs and Economics. “Although these one-page policy papers may include subjective recommendations that reflect the governor’s preferences and objectives, they always contain analysis based on econometrics and factual data.”
The policy labs culminate in a more comprehensive final poster project, where small student cohorts practically apply their learning to solve more complex, real-world problems. This summer, they could choose between two poster project issues, and then present a four page policy paper with recommendations.
Final poster projects ramp up expectations
One challenge assigned students to a hypothetical policy team for a state governor who was considering whether to retract or to expand Medicaid services under the Affordable Care Act. “Each group was assigned a different state and we asked them to crunch the numbers, see how expanding or retracting services would affect the state’s labor market and the market for health insurance,” says Bruhn. Rather than summarizing academic research, students are expected to synthesize the specific data from their state and then make recommendations. “The recommendations for a state like Colorado won’t be the same as those for Mississippi, for example,” says Bruhn.
For the other poster project option, David Benoit MPA ’23, was one of a group of theoretical consultants for Bread and Water for Africa, an NGO in Africa that supplies clean drinking water throughout sub-Saharan Africa, with the goal of preventing illnesses and fatalities among young children. Using data from the NGO’s previous trial efforts to distribute chlorine pills throughout Africa, the group was charged with evaluating the best ways to accomplish this distribution in Zambia. Benoit first became familiar with the Brown campus and the MPA opportunity through his post-college work as the deputy director of legislative affairs and community engagement for the city of Providence.
“We talked about what prices we needed to calculate for, how to interpret the data and how to best distribute the chlorine with the use of subsidies,” says Benoit, who could envision pursuing work with an international NGO like Bread and Water for Africa. With a desire to gain a deeper understanding of immigration policies, including how we treat evacuees, immigrants and refugees, Benoit hopes to learn how to interpret and then impact change on some of society’s core norms, such as treating certain groups, including those who are BIPOC, less equitably.
The opportunity to make policy recommendations incorporating both objective data and subjective analyses of what you believe is most important appealed to Giambertoni, who also worked on the clean drinking water project. “There could be an optimal subsidy economically, but if you’re trying to minimize waste, there might be a different subsidy, depending on the NGO’s priorities,” she says.
Giambertoni found debating in a room with policy analysts with different viewpoints – some prioritizing economics and others humanitarian aspects – conducive to dialogue before arriving at a conclusion, practical. The MPA program “blends economics with policy…that’s what I want to do in the future and see it implemented in the real world,” says Giambertoni.
“It’s very valuable that we, as statisticians and economists in training, are doing real work with real life issues,” Benoit adds, “We can take that knowledge and training once we graduate with our MPA.”
Bruhn concurs. “Students can’t regurgitate [facts and data]; the course work requires them to use the real world, practical, and analytical thinking the MPA program trains them for. We’re not teaching from textbooks.”
- Nancy Kirsch