Paul Niehaus is an associate professor in the Department of Economics at UC San Diego. He is also a Junior Affiliate at the Bureau for Research and Economic Analysis of Development (BREAD), and an Affiliate at the Center for Effective Global Action (CEGA). His research deals with welfare and corruption in developing countries and with learning processes.
Featured Affiliate Interview
We will be running the first large-scale, long-term RCT of a universal basic income… I think it could end up being among the most important things we do.
What got you interested in development economics?
Pretty simple logic: I wanted to solve big social problems, and I liked math. A few of my teachers had a big impact–thanks especially to Ashok Rai (Williams) and Markus Mobius (Microsoft Research).
What is one current research project that you’re particularly excited about?
At GiveDirectly we will be running the first large-scale, long-term RCT of a universal basic income [project]. This is an idea with tremendous resonance and controversy right now, and sadly, there is very little evidence on the basic questions. I think it could end up being among the most important things we do, and am excited to work on it with a great team: Abhijit Banerjee (MIT), Michael Faye (Co-founder and Chairman, GiveDirectly), Alan Kreuger (Princeton), and Tavneet Suri (MIT).
What is your “dream evaluation”? (It doesn’t have to be feasible!)
I'm working on it right now! If I had a different dream, I'd be working on that instead. For fun, though, I would like someone to do an RCT of exposure to Tony Robbins.
What is your most memorable story from the field?
I've allegedly told a few stories about Karthik Muralidharan's foibles, so let me tell one about how great he is. Karthik went in to share results from one of our RCTs with the Chief Secretary of Andhra Pradesh, India, at a time when the Government was under some political pressure to scrap the Biometric Smartcards program. As Karthik tells it, he showed forty pages of regression results, and then added one slide at the end that said 91 percent of people preferred the new biometric smartcards system to the status quo. The last slide won the day, and the government of Andhra Pradesh kept the program. By my estimate, the smartcards program redistributes as much as US $1 billion per year to the rural poor. So: the lessons from this experience are: (1) Work with Karthik, and (2) Impacts matter, but so do votes.
Any other story/news you’d like to share with us, or hope for ongoing or future scale-ups with partners?
My broad ambition is that we find ways to get better at the organizational aspects of doing research. J-PAL has really shouldered this load, and thank goodness, because a typical project these days could involve building a 200-person organization in a month, and who leaves graduate school knowing how to do that? But I think we'll also need different skillsets among PI teams. This will also help with external validity, as once we have tried to scale something ourselves, we'll have more of an eye as to which types of projects have a realistic chance of scaling and which do not.