Staff Profile: Elisabeth O’Toole


What do you do at J-PAL? I provide research support for the Nurse-Family Partnership study, coordinating between the research team and providers on study implementation and analysis. I have also contributed to the facilitation of several J-PAL conferences, including for the State & Local Innovation Initiative and the Health Care Delivery Initiative. Lastly, I have been assisting editing a research resources document regarding RCT challenges.

What drew you to want to work at J-PAL? I rightfully anticipated that J-PAL would be a perfect fit for me to put my economics background to good use. It is incredible that the research resources created and impact evaluations conducted in our department have the potential to impact domestic and even global policy.

What is your favorite place in the world that you have been? Lake Atitlan, Guatemala – I went on a zip-line tour, and despite being incredibly nervous, the views were incredible as we were flying over coffee fields and rain forests as we looked out on the lake.

If you could have dinner with one person, dead or alive, who would it be? I would love the chance to speak again with the departed Fr. Ted Hesburgh, CSC – a former president of my alma mater whose actions had meaningful global impact.

If you could buy one material thing, and money was not an issue, what would you buy? A Viking stove top/oven to bake delicious cookies.

Read Elisabeth’s bio on the J-PAL North America website.

Staff Profile: Ting Wang


Ting_Wang.JPGWhat do you do at J-PAL?   I am a research assistant for MIT professor Amy Finkelstein, working on two of her RCT projects. One project in Pennsylvania studies if the intervention helps increase the take-up rate of SNAP, also known as “food stamps”, among poor and elderly population. The other project investigates the impact of introducing decision-making technology on a provider’s decision to order potentially unnecessary radiology scans for patients.

What drew you to want to work at J-PAL? I audited the “Consumers, Firms and Markets in Developing Countries” class taught by professor Robert Jensen at UPenn when I was on exchange and felt inspired by how economic research can help the poor. I wanted first-hand experience doing this kind of research.

What is your favorite place in the world that you have been?  I love my hometown, Beijing, very much. Besides Beijing, Kyoto in Japan.

If you had to eat only one food for the rest of your life, what would it be? Dumplings (Jiaozi).

Read Ting’s bio on the J-PAL North America website.


Staff Profile: Jamie Daw

jamie_dawWhat do you do at J-PAL? I work with policymakers and health care delivery organizations to develop randomized evaluations of innovative programs and policies. My focus is on facilitating collaborations between J-PAL affiliates and the winners of the Health Care Delivery Innovation Competition, all of which are deploying novel health and social services to improve health outcomes and enhance the accessibility and affordability of quality health care.

What drew you to want to work at J-PAL? J-PAL’s mission to reduce poverty across the globe and the opportunity to act as a liaison between the worlds of research and policy.

What is your favorite place in the world that you have been? My former home, Vancouver B.C., will always have my heart! The juxtaposition of wild nature and a lively, cosmopolitan city is hard to beat.

If you had to eat only one food for the rest of your life, what would it be? The Adventurer Bowl at Life Alive in Cambridge. It tastes great and covers all the food groups!

If you had a million dollars to donate, what would you give it to? Advocacy for universal, affordable child care. I’m passionate about supporting policies that promote gender equality. Access to affordable child care is a huge piece of this puzzle!

Read Jamie’s bio on the J-PAL North America website.

NPR Interviews Quentin Palfrey on Innovative Substance Abuse Treatment Program

Photo credit: J. Tyler Franklin, WFPL

89.3 WFPL, an NPR affiliate, recently featured the Louisville Department of Metro Corrections and J-PAL North America in a radio story. The article talks about the Louisville Metro Department of Corrections’ innovative pay-for-success initiative to provide treatment to individuals with substance abuse disorders immediately upon release from jail. J-PAL North America has partnered with the Department to design an evaluation of whether the program helps former inmates stay out of jail and lead healthier lives.

J-PAL North America’s executive director Quentin Palfrey spoke to reporter Lisa Gillespie about the program’s potential to break the cycle of poverty and lower healthcare costs. “If it turns out the program works and can keep people from returning to jail, instead of paying the larger amount of incarcerating individuals, [Louisville] will pay for the cost of substance treatment,” Palfrey said.

As a winner of J-PAL’s inaugural Health Care Delivery Innovation Competition, the Louisville Department of Metro Corrections receives technical assistance from J-PAL North America staff and $50,000 toward developing a rigorous evaluation of the program. J-PAL North America hopes that the evaluation will be relevant not only to Louisville, but to cities and states nationwide who are also striving to address this challenge. The competition is a part of J-PAL North America’s United States Health Care Delivery Initiative, which supports the use of randomized evaluations to inform health policy.

Listen to the full WFPL story and read the accompanying article here. To find more about the winners of the Health Care Delivery Innovation Competition, check out the MIT Press Release and stay updated on our blog, Facebook and Twitter.

White House releases report on applying behavioral science to government policy

President Barack Obama speaks with Dr. John Holdren, Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and OSTP Social and Behavioral Sciences team, in the Oval Office, Jan. 30, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

The White House’s Social and Behavioral Sciences Team released its second report last month, and it’s worth a close read. The SBST was launched just over two years ago, and has been working to make government more effective. This might seem like quiet, behind the scenes work, but it can make a big difference when scaled up across national programs.

I’ve had the honor of working with the SBST over the past two years and have been impressed by key elements of their approach.

They test relatively small tweaks to programs, but these can add up to real changes that improve lives. Here are a few highlights:

  • A 53 percent increase in workplace savings plan enrollment rates by military service members—more than 4,800 new enrollments—and over $1 million dollars in additional savings in just one month.
  • A doubling in the rate at which student loan borrowers in default contacted default-resolution representatives.

SBST has been exemplary in how they have made research integrity a major priority.

  • They are committed to building A/B testing and random assignment into their studies. When appropriate, this can be a very valuable tool for understanding which approaches work and why.
  • They have highlighted the studies that didn’t work, too, for example in their first report. That’s a refreshingly transparent approach for both academia and government.

They have mastered the art of tapping into external resources and collaborating across agencies.

SBST has partnered with researchers from nationally recognized universities who often provide their time pro bono while getting the chance to conduct policy-relevant studies in partnership with the government. Given the close alignment of J-PAL North America’s specialization on randomized evaluations, our network of academics has been excited to partner with them on multiple studies, and our staff have collaborated from the start on knowledge sharing and best practices in designing and running studies for maximum effect. We’d especially like to congratulate Kelly Bidwell, previously a senior policy manager with J-PAL North America, for her role as one of the initial SBST members during its launch, and her leadership in building the work of SBST.

Last year, President Obama institutionalized their work by signing an executive order to make SBST permanent and directing federal agencies to include behavioral science insights in the design of their programs. I’m hopeful that their work will continue to have an impact for years to come and set the norm for how government innovates.

Staff Profile: Sophie Shank

sophie_shankWhat do you do at J-PAL? As a Policy Associate, I conduct outreach to support evidence-informed policy and decision-making. I help develop research partnerships between J-PAL affiliated researchers and practitioners, and I share key results that come out of these studies.

What drew you to want to work at J-PAL? I was drawn to J-PAL when I learned about its work to rigorously evaluate and subsequently improve programs designed to reduce poverty and address social issues. I am excited about the way that J-PAL shares research results broadly in order to support policymakers, nonprofits, and other leaders in making informed decisions and effectively serving vulnerable populations.

What is your favorite place in the world that you have been? Banff National Park in Canada. I got to visit Banff this summer, and the mountains, glaciers, and vividly turquoise lakes were unbelievable.

If you had to eat only one food for the rest of your life, what would it be? Blueberries. I know it’s not a very practical choice, but blueberries are hands down my favorite food.

If you could have dinner with one person, dead or alive, who would it be? Michelle Obama.

Read Sophie’s bio on the J-PAL North America website.

The New York Times features Lawrence Katz and Raj Chetty’s housing research


Photo credit: Retro Report, The New York Times

Last week the Retro Report, a New York Times video series, featured an interview with J-PAL North America scientific director Lawrence Katz (Harvard). The article describes the evolution of Moving to Opportunity (MTO), a housing mobility demonstration program developed by the Clinton administration in the early 1990s to benefit thousands of families living in public housing projects in the highest-poverty neighborhoods of Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. MTO randomly assigned some families to receive housing choice vouchers to move to higher-income neighborhoods, with the hope of improving their economic opportunities and educational outcomes.

However, the early evidence from the program showed mixed results. Families provided with opportunities to move to higher-income areas ended up being happier and healthier in the short- and medium-term, but MTO moves did not markedly improve either parents’ employment outcomes or children’s test scores.  Interest in housing mobility programs waned in the face of ambiguous initial findings. But after nearly two decades, J-PAL affiliate Raj Chetty (Stanford), Nathaniel Hendren (Harvard), and Katz have uncovered reasons for optimism. Although teenagers who relocated as part of MTO did no better on average than their counterparts who didn’t move, their younger brothers and sisters grew up to go to college at much higher rates and to earn substantially more at their future jobs than did the comparable children in the control group. “Every extra year of childhood spent in a better neighborhood seems to matter,” Chetty told Retro Report. In Katz’s words, “neighborhoods and childhood development are long investments, and one has to have some patience. Most things that are investments take a while to pay off.”

Read the full New York Times article and watch the video here or check out J-PAL’s Policy Briefcase on Moving to Opportunity.  The Chetty, Hendren, and Katz study was published in the American Economic Review in 2016 and is available here.

See more media coverage of Katz and Chetty’s research on MTO:

  • This column and this column by Justin Wolfers in the New York Times Upshot
  • A “Race Matters” segment on PBS News Hour
  • A Washington Post article titled, “What’s good for poor kids isn’t bad for rich ones”