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The 30 Top Thinkers Under 30: The Rhodes and Fulbright Scholar Preparing to Launch a New Government Agency

We canvassed the world of the social and behavioral sciences, looking for rising stars whose careers promise to make a lasting mark. We'll be profiling the top 30 throughout the month of April.


Noam Angrist. (Illustration: Graham Smith)

Noam Angrist. (Illustration: Graham Smith)

As a teenager, Noam Angrist was certain he was going to be a doctor. He’d placed as a semi-finalist in the USA Biology Olympiad and was preparing for the pre-med track. Then, a life-threatening blood clot near his heart and lungs sent him to the hospital for three weeks. The experience made him see what he calls “the jarring failures in our health care system.”

When he got to MIT and started asking himself where he should focus “such that I could really add value in this world,” he figured that, while being a doctor could be rewarding, we already have many superb physicians. “What is really needed is a systemic overhaul,” he realized. “That’s how I fell in love with economics.”

He started as a research assistant for Jonathan Gruber, helping the professor examine the impacts of the Affordable Care Act, work that involved analyzing massive datasets and interacting with top brass at the United States Department of Health and Human Services. “It was a life-changing experience,” Angrist says, “that sealed my commitment to better understanding the social world around us via an awesome combination of compelling theory and empirical experimentation.”

Eventually, Angrist wants to help establish what he envisions as “the equivalent of the FDA for social policy—a regulatory arm committed to ensuring that only social programs that add value, evidenced via research showing clear causal chains from interventions to social impact, ‘go to market,’ so to speak.”

"That’s the job. Being on the cutting edge, discovering what others haven’t, bringing coherence to chaos, and catapulting into existence ideas and programs previously thought impossible, or not thought up at all."

“While many accomplished academics advise key policymakers, I’d love to take it a step further,” Angrist says, “ensuring that this body exists and has a heavy role in ensuring that the word ‘evidence’ is not thrown around lightly. What makes medicine effective, in addition to great doctors and technology, are drugs—stamped by the FDA—that actually work. Why don’t we apply the same hard standard to social programming? Excellent social science is a key ingredient.”

For others, creating a new government agency may sound quixotic. But at 23, Angrist has already been a policy analyst at the World Bank, where he created datasets on educational quality, and at the White House, where he helped think through ways to test technologies in conjunction with Google and the Department of Education, and wrote memos for President Obama on the “crowd-out effects of public health insurance.” He’s a Rhodes and a Fulbright scholar.

Also, he, along with a fellow Fulbright honoree, founded Young 1ove, a Botswana-based non-profit that teaches young Africans how not to get HIV.

“A little over a year ago, I heard the story of a young lady in Botswana’s struggle with a coercive ‘sugar daddy’ who infected her with HIV,” Angrist says. “I was deeply moved, and a paper I had read in a development economics class invaded my brain.”

MIT’s Jameel Poverty Action Lab had evaluated an hour-long “sugar daddy awareness” class in Kenya that reduced teen pregnancy—a proxy for unprotected sex and HIV transmission—by 28 percent. “It was a landmark study showing positive impact. Yet it was never scaled,” Angrist says. “The missed opportunity plagued me. A program like this in Botswana could have saved the lady I spoke with’s life. I scouted the aid world for a seed grant, found one, and leapt into action.”

So far, Angrist and his colleagues at Young 1ove have forged a partnership with the United Nations, put together a 200-page “Young-1ove-in-a-box” curriculum, and trained 50 young staffers in Botswana. Equipped with a hard-won mandate from the Ministry of Education to reach every child in the nation, the organization’s tested “sugar daddy awareness” class has been given to 29,000 young people at 343 schools across Botswana, where 45 percent of 40-year-old men have HIV and “sugar daddies” are, as Angrist puts it, “a persistent parasite.” The next step is to expand into Malawi, Zambia, Swaziland, Lesotho, and Namibia.

“The community has embraced Young 1ove,” Angrist says, “in part because, contrary to typical engagements with AIDS initiatives, we are backed by evidence and a conviction to understand AIDS issues at the community level.”

Angrist was born and raised in Boston and grew up spending a lot of time in his mother’s native Israel. (She’s the head of Boston University’s Hebrew program, and his father is an economist at MIT.) He says that Boston’s concentration of academia showed him “the potential for sheer intellect and innovation to change the world, [while] Jerusalem taught me the importance of having cultural roots, and the ability for much to be accomplished in a short lifetime. Israel, in just a few decades, more than tripled its population, doubled wages, dropped infant mortality from 36.5 per 1,000 to just 3.9, and emerged as the ‘start-up nation.’ Perhaps I can harness my education and short life span to transcend boundaries, as my origins prove is possible.”

When he’s not focused on econometrics, Angrist says,I’m a total foodie. Bring on the Iron Chef battles, tastings, and late-night cooking.” He also teaches calculus at the University of Botswana, runs workshops on development economics at high schools in Gaborone, and coaches crew—he prepared Botswana’s first rowing team in preparation for the Youth African Games.

A plaque on his desk reads CARPE DIEM. “There are a lot of things in life that you can get back,” Angrist says, “Money, awards, pride, social connections, and so forth, but time is one thing you can never get back. Once a minute is gone, it's gone forever, so you have to make every single second count.”

The “Interests and Skills” section of his curriculum vitae, alongside “Stata,” “Hebrew,” and “Basic Setswana,” lists “Restaurant Waiting,” “Fake Sugar,” and “Econometrics Jokes.”

In addition to wanting to be a doctor, at some point Angrist also wanted to be a marine biologist: “I was intrigued by the idea of discovering the unknown—the ocean—which, while murky and hard to understand, engulfs us, comprising over three quarters of our world. I gave that up when I realized that I could do the same thing as a social scientist and entrepreneur. That’s the job. Being on the cutting edge, discovering what others haven’t, bringing coherence to chaos, and catapulting into existence ideas and programs previously thought impossible, or not thought up at all.”

We’ll be publishing profiles of this year’s list of the 30 top thinkers under 30 throughout the month of April. Visit this page every day to read about another young person who is making an impact on the social, political, and economic issues we make it our mission to cover every day at Pacific Standard.

A version of this year’s list is also available to subscribers as a feature in our May/June print issue. For more from Pacific Standard on the science of society, and to support our work, sign up for our email newsletter and subscribe to our bimonthly magazine. Digital editions are available in the App Store (iPad) and on Zinio (Android, iPad, PC/MAC, iPhone, and Win8), Amazon, and Google Play (Android).