The Research School of Economics (RSE) is home to world-leading fundamental research and vital experimental research that uses randomised controlled trials (RCT) to explore pressing issues in society. These are experiments run in the field, employing an intervention on one or more groups and then measuring the results against a control group who were not subject to the altered treatment.
The newly created John Mitchell Economics of Poverty Lab is an initiative born out of RSE to produce research that deepens our understanding of poverty and income inequality. The inaugural John Mitchell Fellow, Dr Sutanuka Roy, uses large-scale RCTs to generate evidence that leads to real-world outcomes for disadvantaged groups.
Sutanuka has a working paper that reports on the first large-scale RCT to involve legally recognised minorities in India. Using more than 14,000 undergraduate students, the study examines the effects of providing merit-based financial incentives to disadvantaged students following a high stakes university test.
There is widespread interest in policies that improve the educational outcomes of disadvantaged students. Preferential policies, scholarships, and prizes can increase the incentive of targeted students to compete for rank in class. When targeted students are already intrinsically motivated to perform highly in class, any increase in incentives can actually decrease the motivation of non-eligible peers who are also competing for rank in class.
Another researcher whose work centres around RCTs and evaluating the impact of social programs is Dr Eva Vivalt. One of the key areas Eva has explored in her research is how much one is able to generalise from the results of impact evaluations. In a recent study, she found large amounts of variation in the treatment effects of numerous studies in development economics. This means that it would be difficult to extrapolate from the results of a single study to another context or to a slightly different intervention. This work is important for informing how policymakers might use and interpret the results of impact evaluations.
Eva has built on this work in an RCT that explores how policymakers update their beliefs in response to new evidence from impact evaluations. In collaboration with UC Berkeley, she is also developing and studying an online platform to collect expert forecasts of the results of research studies. Their project was recently awarded a grant from the Sloan Foundation and will evaluate when the beliefs of researchers and policymakers about the effects of a social program are likely to be correct. Over time, this work should enable better forecasts, better experimental design, and better policy decisions. It may also help mitigate publication bias in that papers that find "zero effect", which could still be considered interesting if those results were unexpected.
RSE comprises a diverse range of research areas that contribute to its academic excellence. The examples here show the importance of RCTs and the ways in which initiatives like the John Mitchell Economics of Poverty Lab are having an impact on society.