This month we speak to Prof Imran Rasul to find out how his research on the economics of viral epidemics is improving the health of the public.
Prof Imran Rasul
Professor of Economics
UCL Department of Economics
What is your role and what does it involve?
I joined UCL in 2005 as a lecturer. I am now a Professor of Economics and Co-Director of the Centre for the Microeconomic Analysis of Public Policy at the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS). My research focuses on microeconomic topics in development, labour and public economics. I teach graduate development economics, and supervise PhD students in all areas of applied microeconomics. I am managing editor of the Journal of the European Economic Association. As a Council member of the Royal Economic Society, I try and help fulfil their mission to promote the study of economic science in the UK, support economists and promote diversity in the profession.
How are you improving the health of the public?
I have a longstanding research agenda on the economics of viral epidemics – I wrote a short review article for economists at the end of 2019 on that, highlighting how beyond the health impacts, such aggregate shocks can quickly impact demand and supply in the economy, and the nature of social interactions. This agenda started with earlier work on the Zika epidemic in Brazil, using tens of millions of administrative records from the health service to document the extent to which households responding to public health alerts on Zika (where pregnant mothers were especially vulnerable).
I have ongoing work in Sierra Leone, that has tracked a cohort of girls since just prior to the Ebola outbreak in 2014 to 2020. This study aims to understand the effects of school closures on their economic and health outcomes. That is a context in which young women are exposed to a high level of sexual violence and we document how short run school closures raised pregnancy rates, reducing the ability of girls to re-enrol into school and thus had permanent impacts on their ability to acquire skills and human capital. We use a randomized control trial that provided safe spaces to girls during the period of school closures to show how the provision of such facilities helps prevent young women from getting pregnant, and continue their education as schools reopen. We are now able to track the long run impacts of the intervention on these young women – and are aiming to examine how their lives were impacted by the Covid epidemic relative to girls that never had such safe spaces available to them.
On Covid, I have been working with teams at IFS to understand the financial consequences on UK households – in terms of incomes, savings and patterns of consumption over the crisis. I was also involved as a lead editor at the Economics Observatory that provides summaries of economics research on all aspects of the Covid pandemic and how it impacts the UK economy and health of the public.
What do you find most interesting or enjoyable about your work?
It is hugely enjoyable to work with and learn from young researchers – who seem light years ahead of me at the same stage of their careers. Seeing them develop their own ideas and go on to lead research teams is hugely rewarding. Teaching my MSc course is also fun, seeing students grasp key insights and then want to know more is just really satisfying. I am also fortunate in having role models among my senior colleagues, who always make me want to raise my game and continue improving. Being engaged with policy makers and seeing your research make a difference to the economic lives of the poor is hugely motivating. Most of all, I enjoy the sheer randomness of academic life: you never know which ideas will come up next, or how research problems will be solved, but they always are. Those chance encounters to discuss and share research are what I have missed the most in the past year.
How have cross-disciplinary collaborations shaped your research?
Most of the fundamental economic challenges of our time – inequality, climate change, global poverty and responses to economy wide shocks – all require a cross-disciplinary approach. I have used insights from sociology, anthropology, management, political science, epidemiology and psychology in my work and it has been far better for this. Economists have a wonderfully powerful set of tools to analyse data, that is increasingly either directly collected by economists themselves, or in the form of population wide registry data linking individuals over their life course. These represent great opportunities, but to model, understand and predict economic change, often requires combining the precision of economic frameworks with ideas from other social sciences. I have enjoyed being part of cross-disciplinary research teams, exemplified by the work of the Deaton Review of Inequality, for which I am a panel member.
What advice would you offer to others interested in developing cross-disciplinary research?
Think about why you want to develop this agenda – what will each discipline bring, and where are the complementarities between them. Finding funders and publication outlets for such work can be hard, but both are open to persuasion if the gains to learning from such an approach can be clearly articulated. Bringing together such teams in successful collaborations often involves overcoming language barriers and investing the time to learn methodological approaches of others.
What's next on the research horizon for you?
The need to understand the causes and consequences of inequality has never been greater. As we emerge from the pandemic, the challenges society will face will be long lasting. We need to have the right policies to mitigate inequalities, to ensure young people have the opportunity to fulfil their potential.
An increasing amount of my research agenda is dedicated to understanding the non-economic impacts of poverty alleviation policies around the world. These might relate to the psychological impacts of being given assistance, or how economic advancement shapes preferences, beliefs and policy demands. I also have ongoing research programs being developed to understand the economics of crime in the UK, especially the interlinkage between educational opportunity, labour markets and engagement in crime. I also plan to work more on understanding the causes and consequences of gaps in the economic circumstances of ethnic minorities in the UK.
If you could make one change in the world today, what would it be?
In every street in every town there are young people with the talent to be the next generation of scientific leaders. We need to ensure we nurture that talent from early childhood and through the formal education system. Ensuring we enable talent to be allocated to where it best serves society, and leads individuals to lean meaningful and productive lives, is the greatest challenge for our economic and political systems.