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Policy-Based Evidence in Economics

My dissertation, Expertise and the Enigma of Policy Influence: How Interventions in Healthcare and Education Changed Economics, 1950-2022, is a comparative history of the social policy contributions made by economists of health and education in the United States. Drawing on an innovative collection of archival sources and interviews with experts sampled from top academic departments, federal agencies, marginal research institutions, and think tanks, I exploit variation in economic expertise to unearth how much of the world as we know it has been shaped by economic experts most people have never heard of. In contrast to received wisdom, I find that economics is not an unchanging monolith in policy settings, and that the further one gets from the field’s disciplinary core, economic theory is less essential to the work of economists than a common methodological language. Whereas at one point the policy process was a target for economic expertise, today policy is more likely to serve as a work object for knowledge production. Disrupting assumptions about economists serving as all-powerful agents of change, I show how historical events have shaped economics: the work of economics is not a strictly linear trajectory from evidence to policy, but often cumulates as policy-based evidence that can affect subsequent social reform.

Polygenic Prediction: Genetics and Uncertainty in Social Policy

A second major project, Polygenic Prediction, extends my interest in the quantification of social policy to the controversial world of behavior genetics. This project examines how so-called ‘polygenic risk scores’—statistical estimates of the effects human genetics have on individual traits and conditions—are being deployed for clinical and policy purposes. While these scores provide precise numerical estimates, from a policy perspective they are controversial because of what they cannot explain: environmental factors that affect human development, particularly in groups that are not well-represented in genetic databases. In recent years, large repositories of biobank data have becoming increasingly available for research on health and social behavior, but in many cases these data exclude people with non-European ancestry, raising questions about the ‘portability’ of this knowledge to different ‘populations,’ which are themselves the product of social classification. This project is being conducted in collaboration with UCLA’s Aaron Panofsky, with whom I have a longstanding collaborative relationship, and is being advised by a number of experts in genetics and bioethics. Our primary motivation is to contribute to sociological knowledge but a secondary aim of the project is to empower clinicians, policymakers, and the public so that when polygenic prediction is applied, it occurs as ethically and equitably as possible.

Between Equity and Efficiency: Historicizing Quantification in Education Policy

A related area of my research concerns the tendency toward increasing quantification in U.S. social policy. In collaboration with Aaron Panofsky, I am studying the use of statistical models to evaluate the effectiveness of public school teachers. The history of this technology, known as "Value Added Modeling" (VAM), has competing narratives and can be traced either to economic research on the "education production function" from the 1960s or applied statistical research on Tennessee teachers from the 1980s. In an article recently published in Theory and Society, we demonstrate how these narratives are in fact related components of a common process of economization in education policy. Despite the initial excitement about VAM among education reformers and policy-makers, the technology ultimately met a series of legal challenges in states across the U.S., a phenomenon we explore in research published in the Journal of Cultural Economy. Other work from this research examines how the idea of educational "production" was used to orient U.S. federal education policy toward concerns about economic efficiency beginning in the 1960s. This research has been published as a solo-authored article in the Journal of Education Policy.

Economizing the Genome

Looking further ahead, a future book project will bring together my interest in the life sciences and economics through a synthetic examination of the role of quantification in social policy. Building on my dissertation research on the history of health economics and my involvement at UCLA's Institute for Society and Genetics, Economizing the Genome investigates how economists make sense of genomics and repurpose data gathered by geneticists for their own research. One case study for this project, published in Economy and Society in collaboration with Stefan Timmermans, looks at how economists have used "cost-effectiveness analysis" as a post-hoc form of justification for newborn screening programs that test babies for various genetic conditions. Another case study, on the "economization of early life,"is forthcoming at Science, Technology, and Human Values. This paper examines how ideas about epigenetics and the plasticity of early childhood development are increasingly being incorporated into economic models of "human capital" growth, leading economists to recommend maternal health programs, early childhood education, and subsidized child care as worthwhile social policy investments. Future case studies are likely to be about economists' growing interest in a controversial genetic technology known as "polygenic risk scoring" that is being mobilized across different policy domains, as well as an analysis of macroeconomic research that incorporates genetic data into models of economic growth.

Field Theory and the Sociology of Expertise

Building on my empirical research, I am also interested in theorizing how sociologists conceptualize scientific fields in contemporary debates about expertise. In a forthcoming chapter for the Oxford Handbook of Expertise and Democratic Politics edited by Gil Eyal and Tom Medetz, Aaron Panofsky and I survey the use of field theory in the sociology of expertise and consider how the development of scientific fields has contributed to normative concerns about the erosion of scientific autonomy. This is related to my broad interest in the history and organization of social scientific expertise, which affects the kinds of interventions social scientists can make in public affairs. 

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