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How Seema Jayachandran generates new insights utilizing randomized controlled trials

Seema Jayachandran, the Noosheen Hashemi Visiting Professor at the King Center, discusses how she utilizes randomized controlled trials to identify the root causes of poverty.

Seema Jayachandran had plenty to cheer about when the winners of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences were announced this fall.

All three honorees are friends and one of them is a woman in a predominantly male profession. Even more significant, the recognition affirmed how far the study of economics in developing countries has come thanks to pioneering research techniques that the new laureates championed and that lie at the heart of her own groundbreaking anti-poverty work.

Jayachandran, currently the Noosheen Hashemi Visiting Professor at the Stanford King Center on Global Development and an economics professor at Northwestern University, is among a new generation of development economists to rely on randomized controlled trials (RCTs) to identify the root causes of poverty and strategies to alleviate it. The Nobel Prize winners—economists Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo of M.I.T. and Michael Kremer of Harvard University—were honored for their work advancing the use of such experiments in their field.

Seema Jayachandran
Seema Jayachandran

Banerjee and Kremer were Jayachandran’s doctoral advisers and, in a 2006 article in The American Economic Review, she and Kremer suggested a way to dissuade banks from lending money to oppressive or corrupt governments. Jayachandran also chairs the gender sector at the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), which is a global research center co-founded by Banerjee and Duflo.

Jayachandran is a rising star in her own right. Her embrace of RCTs has generated new insights into gender equality, environmental conservation, labor markets, health, and education across the developing world. She has shown, for instance, that paying farmers if they refrain from cutting down trees on their land as a way of protecting forests and endangered species works. She has also found that educating mothers about children’s health can be more effective in improving household nutrition than teaching fathers. And in north India, a high school program that promotes student discussions of gender equality appears to improve attitudes toward women and their roles in society.

She is also a regular contributor to the New York Times’ Economic View column, where she’s countered conventional wisdom about successful tech entrepreneurs, proposed harnessing people’s love for playing the lottery to help them save more, and challenged what she calls the “long-lasting and pernicious” consequences of cash bail in the United States.

“It’s a very exciting time to be a development economist,” says Jayachandran, referring both to the Nobel Prize award and growing awareness of the field’s impact.

She says she’s reminded every day at Stanford of the importance of development economics, where she regularly encounters experts from multiple disciplines, including the economics department, the School of Medicine, and the Graduate School of Business. Jayachandran, who was a member of the Stanford faculty from 2006 until 2011, adds that the growth in the development economics community at the university has been dramatic over the last decade.

“There’s a vibrancy here that is fun and inspiring,” she says.

Challenging the status quo

Jayachandran followed an unlikely path to economics. Born and raised near Salinas, California, by parents with PhDs in math and statistics, she knew from an early age that she wanted to pursue a career in academia. At first, she set her sights on physics, having earned a master’s degree in the science as well as in philosophy from the University of Oxford in 1995. She was two years into the physics doctoral program at Harvard when she realized that studying galaxy formation was intellectually fascinating, but didn’t provide the personal satisfaction she also craved.

“I wanted to do something that would use the same analytical skills, but to solve social problems,” she says. After Harvard friends helped her realize that economics offered both, she graduated from Harvard with a PhD in 2004. She spent two years researching health policy at the University of California Berkeley before joining the faculty at Stanford and then Northwestern.

Jayachandran has returned to Stanford this year as a visitor at the King Center, where the research community is benefiting greatly from her expertise.

“Seema’s presence as a Noosheen Hashemi Visiting Professor is a tremendous asset to the Stanford community and the King Center,” said Jessica Leino, interim director of the King Center. “Students and faculty alike are benefiting from her energy, ideas and insights as we all work to generate research that can inform policies for alleviating poverty around the world.”

Among other projects she’s working on this year, Jayachandran is conducting a randomized trial with Pascaline Dupas, the incoming director of the King Center and a professor of economics, and doctoral student Mark Walsh on the effectiveness of a program they designed to improve language development in children by educating parents about the importance of talking to their infants—which isn’t always customary in the developing world.

Jayachandran is also passionate about another issue: the relative dearth of women in the upper ranks of economics. The way she sees it, the problem stems, in part, from an overly aggressive culture marked by blunt and sometimes confrontational discourse that can be alienating to many women (and even men). In response, she is using her role as co-director of the development economics program at the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) to institute small changes that she hopes have a lasting effect. For example, the program now prohibits audience members from interrupting scholars in the first 10 minutes of their research presentations at NBER conferences.

Jayachandran is hopeful, too, that greater awareness of the social impact that economists can have will have the same effect it had on her and draw more women into the field.

Pursuing policy shifts

For Jayachandran, that impact extends to real-world policymaking. This includes working with a J-PAL team in India to try to raise more than $1 million for a state government-run pilot program based on her research into changing views on gender equality among high school students. Eventually, she hopes the classroom discussion can be scaled across the country and even adapted to different cultures across the developing world.

The ultimate goal, says Jayachandran, is to bring down the number of voluntary abortions of female fetuses that has accompanied India’s rising prosperity and fed a desire for smaller families with at least one son. In some places, men vastly outnumber women.

The rise in sex-selective abortions, says Jayachandran, not only is a human rights issue, but also a potential problem for India’s leaders as men frustrated by their inability to find wives turn to civil unrest or crime.

“Some people say that the role of an academic is not to be an advocate, but it’s a mingling of roles that I’m comfortable with,” says Jayachandran. “A lot of what we do as development economists is innovate and test. If something works and it helps us understand one of the biggest challenges in the world, which is global poverty, I try to push it further into the policy realm whenever possible.”