Policy Research Laboratory

What is the Policy Research Laboratory?

The Policy Research Laboratory is a two part program in which Dr. TJ Canann and Dr. David Puelz train undergraduate students in the programming, applied mathematics/statistics, and economics tools needed to participate in cutting edge policy research. The course is offered in both the Fall and Spring semesters. Then, at the end of this class, the students are matched to research projects to apply the skills that they have learned in the the class.

During the training phase, the students take a three-credit course in McCombs that focuses on the fundamentals of economics, programming, and applied mathematics/statistics that are necessary for policy research. Then, over the following year, the students will be actively engaged in research projects with faculty members associated with the center to both apply the skills they have learned in the training and to gain more experience in the specific field of research in which they choose to work.

The training will be a rigorous course in which the students will attend lectures for three hours a week, a TA help session for one hour a week, and work together for 15 to 20 hours a week to complete homework assignments and coding lab projects. Near the end of the course, faculty associated with the Center will present research that they would like research help on, and the students will be attached to projects for the following school year. These assignments and updates on the students’ progress on their research will be posted on the Salem Center’s Website.

Example Data/Research Projects

COVID-19 Data Work
A great deal of the research assistants’ time has been spent studying the policy responses to COVID-19. The mission of this project is to gather information about large areas of economic activity and public health in Texas in order to make policy recommendations about re-opening the economy with the trade-offs of public health (i.e. currently COVID-19) in mind. We started with Austin, then have expanded to the rest of the top 20 MSAs, overall state indicators, and national indicators. To see the current state of our research, see the Salem Center’s COVID-19 Site.

Cybersecurity Policy Program
By first understanding the behavioral consequences of policy changes in cyberspace, we are better able to defend and understand the increasingly connected world in which we live. The research assistants have helped to gather data and information for the Cybersecurity Post of the Month and the Salem Center “Free Lunch” Blog posts about cybersecurity.

Measuring Measurement Error
During the Spring 2020 course, the research assistants were cited in an academic paper for gathered data in order to overcome a long-standing econometric problem. See the paper here.

Machine Learning and Causal Inference
Several faculty at UT Austin have developed new tools for measuring causal effects of interventions (e.g., a policy) on complex systems (e.g., the economy). The research assistant will work with faculty on applying these tools to never-before-analyzed observational and experimental data. The goal will be to write about and publish the results.