Thomas Tasche was one of those kids who was always asking questions, this one most of all: "Wait, but why?" That inquisitiveness stands at the center of his professional life today.
As a candidate for a master's in public affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public & International Affairs at Princeton University—and as a former policy advisor at both the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and at the Department of the Treasury—Tasche has a lot under his belt for a 26-year-old, by any standard.
Though he is a social scientist, Tasche describes his approach to research as "omnivorous." His thesis on Chinese investment in the Caribbean was awarded the Lieutenant John A. Larkin Memorial Prize—which recognizes the best thesis in the field of political economy—for its examination of the superpower's activities in less-prominent corners of the globe. It's a topic that seems to suit Tasche's belief that heading down well-trodden or expected paths of research isn't always the most instructive.
"One thing I've come to understand over the course of my research is that smart people from different disciplines can reach starkly different conclusions about the same issue—Chinese investment, for example—because they approach it from different perspectives," Tasche says. "To reach the most complete understanding of the issue, you've got to listen to what everyone at the table has to say."
Indeed, Tasche's work seems to directly challenge a lot of the reductionist narratives that swirl around politics and, by extension, the media that covers it. He uses the example of free trade, a contentious issue in the 2016 election, when both candidates assumed a more protectionist stance in opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Because the vast majority of the rhetoric around things like the TPP and the North American Free Trade Agreement was framed as economic, Tasche says, analysts missed out on the fuller, cross-sectional picture.
"If you neglect the socio-political side of the debate, you're never going to make accurate predictions about how developments in the trade space will play out," Tasche says. "At the same time, if you ignore the economic arguments, you risk missing the big picture."
While academia can feel dismally slow, Tasche speaks of his work more in terms of rule-breaking. "I see it as the job of interdisciplinary scholars to act as disrupters of convention within their fields, and in the process push everyone forward," he says.
Tasche—who is also a keen language-learner, describing his passion for working toward fluency in French, Japanese, and Chinese as "Crossfit for the mind"—has a refreshing approach to policy, one that seems both constructive and practical. Hearing him lucidly communicate what he does without any jargon, it would be hard to describe him as a wonk, even though his résumé places him alongside the best policy minds of the day.
"I wanted to be the next Frank Lloyd Wright when I was little, so I can't imagine the six-year-old me would be too thrilled with my CV today," Tasche says. "But here's how I would rationalize it to a younger version of me: You wanted to build things when you grew up. You haven't given up that dream—you're just building something different from what you originally imagined. They might not be bridges or skyscrapers, but well-designed policy can be just as useful to people."
Explore the complete list of this year's 30 top thinkers under 30 here. (Lead 3-D Illustration: Comrade)