Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

Back to Brown: Alum Returns to Teach Students How to Evaluate Policy

Neil Thakral ’13 has just returned to his alma mater, with joint appointments in the Watson Institute and Brown University’s Department of Economics. In addition to his research on behavioral economics, labor economics, and housing policy, Thakral, an assistant professor of economics and international and public affairs, currently teaches in Watson’s Master of Public Affairs (MPA) program and will begin teaching in the economics department in the spring of 2020.

What drew you to Brown as an undergraduate?

I applied to Brown early decision because of the Open Curriculum. The idea of taking an active role in shaping your own education was very appealing to me. Microeconomics provided my first exposure to approaching social problems through the lens of mathematics. The opportunity as an undergraduate to work closely with Brown faculty on exciting research was invaluable and motivated me to pursue a PhD in economics.

How does it feel to return to Brown as a faculty member?

It’s absolutely fantastic. In the past five years, the Watson Institute and the economics department have expanded tremendously – including in my focus of work, applied microeconomics. Since my time as an undergraduate at Brown, the Watson Institute’s global programming and educational opportunities have continued to grow and now include public policy as an undergraduate concentration, the MPA, and the Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy. I’m grateful to have very good friends in the economics department who welcome me and are deeply interested in my professional development.

How is your MPA course, Program Evaluation and Policy Analysis, related to your research?

The course helps students develop the skills to design and evaluate public policy. Ethical issues exist in randomizing social programs, so estimating the impact of an intervention can require different methods. This is a course in research methods where students learn the tools for doing causal inference. I use these methods in my research, including ongoing work on housing policy.

How is your research important to policy makers?

My work in behavioral economics investigates the way people make decisions, with an emphasis on implications for the design of markets and incentives. One project examines the effect of fluctuations in earnings on the decision of how much to work, focusing on workers who can flexibly choose their hours, which has some relevance to flexible work policies. The finding that behavior is sensitive to the timing of payments can be applied to develop more effective policies for stimulating consumption.

I’ve also done research on the optimal allocation of public housing. I propose a new mechanism for allocating public housing that improves the matching between tenants and housing units by allowing households to trade off their preferences for different units and waiting times. I show that implementing this in practice could lead to substantial welfare gains.

At Harvard, where you earned a PhD in business economics, you received the Roger Martin Award for your research and exceptionally high marks for your teaching. Which is your first love – teaching or research?

I think that the two are complementary. I’m excited about teaching in a professional program like at the Watson Institute because it opens opportunities to collaborate with students on policy-relevant work, which I’d be thrilled to do.

In fact, I’m partnering with an organization in the United Kingdom, the Behaviouralist, where world-renowned behavioral scientists apply cutting-edge academic research to businesses. I have been doing theoretical work to devise what an optimal public housing allocation system would look like; in practice, existing systems can be very inefficient. I had relatively little success in finding public housing practitioners to partner with until I presented my research at a conference, where I met someone who works with the Behaviouralist. The company has recently received a grant to launch a pilot project with local housing authorities. While the research is in its very early stages, I am excited to be collaborating with two MPA alumni, Manuel Monti-Nussbaum ’15 and Jesper Åkesson ’16, who both work for the Behaviouralist.

-- Nancy Kirsch