MIT GOV/LAB is excited to introduce our new postdoctoral associate, Lula Chen! Lula received her PhD in political science from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2020, studying international relations and methods. While in graduate school, she researched taxation and public service delivery in Malawi for Evidence in Governance and Politics’ (EGAP) Metaketa Initiative and worked for the Office of Evaluation Sciences (OES) at the U.S. General Services Administration as a methods specialist. Before starting her doctoral studies, she was a program manager at Sister Cities International.
Lula and MIT GOV/LAB science writer Will Sullivan sat down (in front of their respective computer screens) to chat about her past work, her graduate studies, and what she’s looking forward to while at MIT GOV/LAB. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Will: Let’s start off with a big-picture question. What got you interested in international relations? What motivates you to do this kind of work?
Lula: I think from a young age I’ve always really loved history, and to me, international relations is history as it’s unfolding. I immigrated to the United States from China when I was four, and my family used to talk a lot at the dining room table comparing different countries, like how China is different from the United States.
I’ve also always been really driven by public service since I was young. With international development work, I get to see how different forms of governance and government are affecting and serving people.
Will: You worked on helping the U.S. government better serve people during your time at OES (OES helps U.S. government agencies with evidence-building and evaluations). Does OES have to spend time trying to convince agencies to use the evidence?
Lula: It’s less about convincing agencies to use the evidence than it is about getting them to buy into the process. I’ve been in enough meetings where you’re trying to convince them especially that doing randomization and having a treatment and control group are things that are worthwhile. It’s always hard to convince a group to hold back the policy from half of their sample. It definitely varies by agency — there are groups that OES has worked with for a long time, and they’ve bought in, but then there are also groups that need a lot of convincing.
Will: What are some strategies for getting an agency on board with the process? Did you also have to strategize about how to communicate results to the agencies?
Lula: It helps that a law was passed that requires agencies to show their policies are working in a quantitative way. But OES also has this amazing portfolio of projects now, so it’s very easy for them to point to certain projects and say “look, we saved the government millions of dollars,” or “with this little change we increased uptake by some percentage.”
When academics talk about things, especially when they involve randomization and causal inference, there’s a very specific set of language around it, and you have to translate it into “what does this mean for policy? What does it mean for decision making?”
Will: I was reading about the motivation behind an EGAP Metaketa (a set of coordinated studies on a single intervention), and it talked about the “crisis of external validity” in the social sciences. Can you talk about what that crisis is, and how the Metaketa Initiative addresses it?
Lula: If you do a project in a specific context, it’s hard to know if it’s going to work the same way in another context. The Metaketas are really trying to make sure things are working across different contexts. So for example, they’ll field an experiment that tests a specific intervention in six different countries. If we get similar results across countries, we might feel more confident that this intervention could work more generally.
Will: You conducted research on decision making for your dissertation, right? Can you tell me more about that?
I studied group decision making, specifically among small, informal groups. Foreign policy is often controlled by these more free-flowing, informal types of committees that end up making these big decisions. I was interested in the social dynamics within these committees, and my research focused on two different biases very common with decision makers. One is conformity bias, where people agree because they want to make sure they’re on good terms with each other. The second is confirmation bias, which is when you think whatever position you’ve taken is the right position, and you think all the additional information you get affirms your position.
I developed a computational model to see what happens when there’s a mix of conformity and confirmation bias within a group. The research tends to show that you don’t want any of either. But I found that if you have this mix, it really helps agents make better decisions.
Will: Let’s end by looking forward a bit. What are you most excited to dig into during your time at GOV/LAB?
Lula: GOV/LAB research brings both academic and policy value, and that’s something I’ve really wanted out of my own research. And then I love that it’s interdisciplinary. I love working with people outside the social sciences, because they think about questions differently. The more people you get at the table to develop policies, the greater the chances are that the policy is going to work for the citizens it’s serving, the better decisions these groups will make.