Yale names inaugural executive director of Tobin Center for Economic Policy
David Wilkinson ’06 J.D., a former senior White House official and a prominent voice for data-driven, evidence-based policymaking, has been appointed the founding executive director of the Tobin Center for Economic Policy at Yale.
Wilkinson, who will join the Tobin Center on Sept. 4, directed the White House Office of Social Innovation and served in other White House senior policy roles from 2013 to 2017, leading successful national efforts to advance novel, data-driven approaches to social problems. More recently, he served in cabinet-level roles for two Connecticut governors, in which he launched results-based initiatives featured by The New York Times and the Aspen Institute. At the federal and state level, he has advanced bipartisan legislation to harness data and evidence to generate better, more effective policy.
His appointment marks the latest step in the university’s strategic investment in data-driven, social-science scholarship that shapes public policy — one of Yale President Peter Salovey’s top priorities. In 2018, the university established the Tobin Center to advance rigorous, nonpartisan economic research that defines and informs domestic policy debates. It will take on critical issues like health care, education, tax reform, environmental economics, and other concerns that affect the wellbeing of millions of people in the United States.
“With extensive experience in applying and developing evidence-based domestic policies, Dave understands the importance of rigorous analysis and data-driven research to tackling economic and political challenges and informing public discourse,” said Salovey. “I know he will lead the center with wisdom and passion, and I look forward to working with him to help faculty, students, and staff contribute knowledge and ideas that will bridge divides and improve lives.”
Wilkinson’s leadership has contributed meaningfully to a new field of data- and evidence-informed policymaking, which has attracted bipartisan support for its promise to cost-effectively generate measurably better results.
“The field is powered by academic social scientists — economists, psychologists, data scientists, and others — who rigorously evaluate policies and discover actionable policy insights through advanced data analytics,” said Wilkinson, who explained that the work is producing results on a diverse range of issues, from increasing kindergarten readiness to reducing recidivism.
“There remains tremendous untapped opportunity,” he added. “Robust engagement by social scientists will be critical to realizing the full potential of evidence-based, data-driven policymaking to better serve people and the planet. I am eager to advance this work at the Tobin Center, to build partnerships in the policy space, and to help shorten the time between research and impact.”
Wilkinson will work closely with Steven Berry, the Tobin Center’s inaugural Jeffrey Talpins Faculty Director and the David Swensen Professor of Economics.
“Dave has championed the cause of evidence-based policy at the highest levels of state and federal government,” said Berry. “He has experience connecting researchers with policymakers to develop innovative solutions to pressing issues based on rigorous analysis rather than ideology. We’re delighted to welcome him to the Tobin Center.”
At the White House, Wilkinson led efforts to use data and evidence to measurably enhance the impact of federal policy and funding. He increased funding for evidence-based programs and worked with bipartisan coalitions in Congress to pass legislation aimed at strengthening and expanding the use of data to assess and improve government performance. He mobilized governors and mayors in red states and blue states to use data to improve the impact and cost-effectiveness of criminal justice, healthcare, and education programs. His efforts advancing presidential priorities received coverage from more than 100 national and local media outlets, including The New York Times, Time Magazine, and the Associated Press.
“We are delighted that Dave will be joining us at Yale, after a distinguished career at both the national and state level,” said Tamar Szabó Gendler, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “His presence will help ensure that the Tobin Center fulfills its mission of bringing the foundational work of our economics faculty to bear on pressing questions of policy and practice. It will allow us to attract and support faculty whose field-shaping economic research has direct implications for the most pressing policy questions of our time. Dave’s detailed knowledge of the policy landscape will allow us to connect faculty with policymakers and policymakers with faculty, to the great benefit of the university, the state, the nation, and the world.”
Following his White House tenure, Wilkinson served as Connecticut’s commissioner of early childhood, appointed by then-Governor Dannel Malloy and confirmed by the state Senate on a unanimous, bipartisan vote. In the cabinet-level post, he directed one of the state’s largest agencies by budget size, deploying or leveraging annual funding of nearly half a billion dollars in support of approximately 200,000 children and families across Connecticut. Current Governor Ned Lamont ’80 M.B.A. tapped him for the role of chief performance officer, where he oversaw efforts to advance technology, results-driven procurement, data sharing, and improved performance statewide.
“David has been a key player in our administration’s efforts to right-size our state government and identify areas where we can create efficiencies to improve performance and save taxpayer dollars,” Lamont said. “Yale is a great partner to the State of Connecticut, and I appreciate that they have selected someone who understands the state and the region and will be able to facilitate these efforts going forward in Connecticut and beyond.”
As the Tobin Center’s executive director, Wilkinson will oversee an already vibrant research community. This summer, the center’s first class of pre-doctoral graduate fellows started work on research projects with center-affiliated faculty touching on a variety policy issues, including prescription drug prices, racial disparities in the health system, the effects of eviction on poverty, and wealth distribution and economic inequality. At the faculty level, research by Yale economists Zack Cooper and Fiona Scott Morton is driving bipartisan efforts to protect patients from being surprised with steep medical bills after being treated at the emergency room.
“Dave is the ideal executive director to set the Tobin Center on a successful path,” said Alan Gerber, dean of social science and the Charles C. & Dorathea S. Dilley Professor of Political Science. “He has an impressive track record of facilitating innovation in government and establishing effective policies based on rigorous analysis of evidence, as well as strong connections to policymakers. The Tobin Center is a critical part of Yale's efforts to apply empirical social science to the country’s most important and intractable problems, and with Dave and Steve Berry at the helm, it is poised to have a swift and significant impact on public policy debates.”
A building to house the Tobin Center is scheduled to open in spring 2022 and will feature faculty offices and space for research fellows, graduate students, and undergraduate researchers, along with rooms for workshops and other events. The center is also building computing infrastructure to facilitate policy-relevant economic research that involves accessing and analyzing massive public and private datasets.
In addition to supporting scholarship, the center will bring policymakers and policy experts to campus to inform researchers’ work and consult with them on how it can best impact the real world.
Before joining the White House, Wilkinson directed a federally regulated impact investment fund. He is a member of the Yale Law School Association’s Executive Committee. In connection with the Yale Child Study Center, he holds an appointment as adjunct assistant professor at the Yale School of Medicine.