CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Jake Bowers, a University of Illinois political science professor, has been appointed to a White House team that’s applying insights from social and behavioral science to improve access to federal programs.
Bowers began his stint with President Obama’s year-old Social and Behavioral Sciences Team (SBST) last month and will continue with it through next summer.
“I had been looking for ways to apply what I know to real-world problems, and this seemed like a perfect opportunity,” said Bowers, whose expertise is in political methodology and applied statistics.
“It turned out they had a use for somebody like me who could help them deal with tricky research design and data analysis issues, but at the same time, I could get involved in public policy-type work.”
Bowers found out about the SBST through a group email list after his wife and colleague, Cara Wong, learned that she had received an appointment as a Russell Sage Foundation Visiting Scholar and would be spending the academic year in New York City. He and Wong and their children are living in New York while he periodically commutes to Washington, D.C., for meetings.
Part of what attracted Bowers to the SBST was the independent way in which team members are allowed to work. “The members of the SBST are entrepreneurs, basically. We try to find out what federal agencies need, and then we try to help them,” he said.
Much of the team’s work is focused on making programs easier to access and more user-friendly. It might involve finding ways to streamline access, improving how information is presented, or changing the way program options are presented and structured.
According to a recent report, projects from the team’s first year resulted in more service members saving for retirement, more students going to college and more farmers obtaining credit, among other outcomes.
When in Washington, Bowers works out of the General Services Administration building about two blocks from the White House. His team is based in the GSA’s Office of Evaluation Sciences, though it reports to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. He is one of only three academics on this year’s team, though all of the members have strong backgrounds in fields such as psychology, economics, public policy, international development and political science.
Bowers said he was inspired to apply for the SBST through his past participation in EGAP (Evidence in Governance and Politics), a network of scholars and practitioners engaged in field experiments related to the development of good governance, politics and institutions in many different countries. Their experiments have dealt with issues such as preventing voter registration fraud in Ghana, improving the accountability of municipal governments in Mexico, and enhancing the economic integration of ex-child soldiers in Liberia, among many others.
“It’s really inspiring to hear what these people do. They really make a difference in the lives of people,” Bowers said. Although he began to participate with EGAP as a methodologist, he sought to collaborate with researchers doing experiments in the field and recently began a project focusing on the impact of television on social norms regarding violence in northern Nigeria.
Bowers said he hopes the SBST will be an opportunity to continue that kind of work in the context of domestic policy, as well as to be more directly involved in leading studies – in addition to being the methodologist advising about analysis and design.
“The SBST allows me to combine science and public service and my general nerdiness,” Bowers said. “I’m sort of thrilled.”