New academic center to advance economic policy research

Named for the late James Tobin, the Tobin Center for Economic Policy at Yale will enhance Yale’s role in informing data-driven discussions of public policy.
James Tobin
James Tobin

Yale has announced the formation of a new research enterprise, the Tobin Center for Economic Policy at Yale, named for the late James Tobin, iconic faculty member and Nobel laureate. The center will advance rigorous, evidence-based research intended to define and inform policy debate.

Alumni, parents, and friends of the university have contributed more than $60 million to establish the Tobin Center, including an anonymous lead gift of $30 million. Anita and Josh Bekenstein ’80 and Amandine and Stephen Freidheim ’86 are among the top donors making gifts to endow the center and fund construction of a new building to house it.

The Tobin Center will enhance Yale’s vital role in informing data-driven discussions of public policy,” said President Peter Salovey ’86 Ph.D. “I am very grateful to our donors for supporting Yale’s emphasis on the importance of using empirical approaches in the social sciences to address the greatest challenges of today.”

The Tobin Center will convene faculty members, students, and visiting experts, provide research grants, and communicate its findings to a broad audience that includes policy makers and the public. The center will have a faculty director, executive director, and a cadre of faculty fellows drawn from departments and schools across the university.

The establishment of the Tobin Center is part of a strategic investment to build Yale’s strength in data-driven economic policy. It will also address a need in the United States for non-partisan, policy-relevant research by first-rate academic economists.

Yale’s Department of Economics is consistently ranked among the world’s best in econometrics, economic theory, industrial organization, international trade, and the study of developing economies. The new center will draw on these strengths and build further capabilities in domestic policy analysis. It will also invite the participation of Yale’s social sciences departments in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the schools of law, management, forestry, and public health, and other university resources. This broad foundation will position the Tobin Center as a leading voice on critical issues like healthcare, education, tax reform, environmental economics, and other concerns that affect the daily lives and well-being of millions of people in the United States.

Our students go on to be leaders in public policy and other areas to serve all sectors of society. The center’s internationally renowned faculty members will teach our young scholars to think critically about diverse aspects of local and global communities and to apply rigorous analysis to address policy questions,” Salovey said.

A managing director at Bain Capital, Josh Bekenstein was appointed a successor trustee to the Yale Corporation in 2013. “It is extremely rewarding to Anita and me to support Yale’s top priorities, and establishing this new economic center at Yale will position the university to have an impact on domestic policy issues, an important role for Yale,” said Bekenstein.

Stephen Freidheim, the founder of Cyrus Capital and a former student of Tobin, said, “Professor Jim Tobin had a profound impact on me. He devoted his energy and vast intellect to applying economics to the betterment of people and society. He was both brilliant and compassionate. The application and implementation of thoughtfully structured economic theories by great Yale professors and students is a bedrock of Yale’s history in economics and has had a far broader positive impact on the welfare of society, our university, and so many individuals. This center celebrates Yale’s proud history, and I hope it will more firmly cement Yale as the world’s leading university on applying rigorous, academic economic thought to real-world issues. It will be a profound, enduring, and growing hallmark of the study of economics at Yale going forward.”

Ben Polak, university provost, will appoint a faculty planning committee in fall 2018, and the center will roll out its activities beginning in spring 2019. To realize the proposed building, the university will select an architect this summer and start design work; the facility is expected to open in 2022.

Plans for the new building will include faculty offices and space for research fellows, graduate students, and undergraduate researchers, along with convening spaces for workshops and other events. The goal is a state-of-the-art facility that can support a vibrant community of scholars conducting data-driven domestic policy analysis.

Polak describes the mission of the center as setting the agenda for the economics profession: “By founding the Tobin Center, we are saying that a world-class economics department should contribute to domestic policy. We will be throwing empirical light on the issues, suggesting and testing ideas, and finding what works and what does not.

It will benefit the university as a whole,” Polak added. “A great university thrives in engagement with the great policy debates of its era.”

Tamar Gendler, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, said, “With the Tobin Center, Yale can provide new opportunities for faculty members to conduct ‘big idea’ research on crucial issues, with an aim toward communicating their research findings to those who develop and implement public policy. The center will energize the many brilliant minds at Yale who already look at policy-relevant questions through an economic lens. At the same time, it will help to attract leading scholars to join the faculty across a range of disciplines.”

Alan Gerber, dean of the Social Sciences Division in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, notes that the Tobin Center is part of a university-wide effort to use big data to illuminate important questions. “We are beginning to realize the promise of computational breakthroughs to accelerate intellectual exploration in the social sciences,” Gerber said. “We have faster computers, larger data sets, and new techniques for querying them. Pattern recognition and machine learning allow us to extract meaning from large troves of data, and natural language processing enables us to analyze large bodies of text.”

To make the most of these developments, Yale recently reorganized its statistics department as the new Department of Statistics and Data Science, a process, Gerber notes, that involved some outstanding faculty hires and a new undergraduate major. “Across the social sciences, we continue to look at ways that approaches to data can change research and teaching,” he said. “The Tobin Center builds on this work.”

Operations of the Tobin Center will be modeled on other successful academic centers within the economics department, such as the Cowles Foundation and the Economic Growth Center. The center will disburse targeted funds to affiliated faculty, with the research goal of analyzing policy options and, based on that analysis, making policy recommendations. Students, recent graduates, and postdoctoral fellows will take part in this research. The center will disseminate research findings through workshops and seminars, white papers, conferences, academic journals, and the center’s website.

The Tobin Center will be a significant presence on campus, organizing policy lectures and other public events.

We want Yale research to find its way into the real world,” Polak said. “The Tobin Center will convene top faculty and students around these questions, and their ideas will be readily available to policy makers.”

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