Leading Economic Experiments in Latin America

By Brock Mutic, Queen’s Economics Department

QED professor Karen Ye brings her work with the Joint Initiative for Latin American Experimental Economics (JILAEE) to Queen’s, building international connections, and providing research opportunities for students and faculty.

Queen’s Economics Department (QED) Assistant Professor Karen Ye joined Queen’s in 2020 after completing a postdoc at the the Joint Initiative for Latin American Initiative Experimental Economics (JILAEE). Dr. Ye continues to serve as Assistant Director of the institute, an experimental economics research initiative based in Buenos Aires, Argentina, founded in 2018 as a partnership between the University of Chicago—where Dr. Ye received her PhD in 2019—and the Universidad del CEMA (UCEMA) in Buenos Aires. It “use[s] insights from behavioral and experimental economics to reduce inequality and promote economic betterment in Latin America” [1], by “partner[ing] with public and private institutions to produce rigorous research, support[ing] researchers to run their own field experiments in Latin America, and bring[ing] together a network of world-class researchers and innovators” [1].

Testing the Waters

Dr. Ye herself is a behavioural and experimental economist, who combines insights from economics with psychology, sociology, and other disciplines in her research. She conducts experiments in the field to test economic theories. Much of Dr. Ye’s recent research has involved studying how peer effects can affect the human capital investment decisions of young people. “What I’m interested in,” she says, is “how people are affected by their peers and social network when making decisions”. Thus, when UCEMA professor Julio Elias approached Ye and her PhD supervisor at the University of Chicago, John List, with the idea to establish an experimental economics research initiative in Latin America, an area ripe with experimental potential, it was initially a very exciting idea. Before the team at UChicago was prepared to take the plunge into a new world of field work on a different continent however, they wanted to test the waters. Specifically, Dr. Ye and her colleagues wanted to know what kind of demand, if any, existed on the ground for the kind of research they were interested in.

Like their experimental research questions, the team could only get the answers they were looking for in the field, so in 2018 the team packed up and took their first trip to Buenos Aires. On the ground in Latin America, they met with over a dozen potential local research partners, NGOs, and government agencies to gauge the demand for experimental research in Argentina. They determined that “Latin America [was] a bit of an untapped market in terms of field experiments with research partners” [2], and plenty of demand existed for such research; local private and public organizations had many ongoing policy questions and economic intervention programs they wanted to learn from, and there was lots of opportunity to partner with these organizations to conduct field experiments that could experimentally produce insightful results about optimal policies or programs to pursue. “As economists, where we [came] in is we have a very good understanding of how to use incentives to get people to do things”, Ye said, and this made the experimental research the JILAEE team hoped to perform valuable for local research partners hoping to better understand their target populations and drive better economic outcomes using incentives.

Taking the Plunge

After determining that there was an exciting opportunity to conduct experimental field research in partnership with local partners in Latin America, due to the natural fit between the kind of work Ye and her colleagues undertook, and the needs of local partners, JILAEE was officially created. After receiving her PhD from UChicago, Ye was hired as a postdoctoral scholar at JILAEE in 2019. During JILAEE’s first couple of years, she played a central role in setting up the research initiative and making connections with local partners.

JILAEE has two main areas of focus: conducting experimental field research and producing papers; and creating a leading network of researchers in experimental economics in Latin America.

JILAEE in the Field

With its team of in-house and affiliated researchers, JILAEE conducts field experiments in Latin America in partnership with local organizations. Its large team of researchers, experts in experimental, behavioural and development economics, are engaged in a wide variety of field research on issues ranging from income inequality, development, early-childhood education, and effective government institutions. Their team conducts experiments in the field, working in settings ranging from large technology companies to rural communities, in an effort to better understand economic and social issues to help local partners design policy that can achieve better outcomes. JILAEE produces and disseminates its experimental findings and research through academic papers it produces, contributing to the academic literature of experimental economics. It also provides practical advice through policy briefings that JILAEE researchers produce for NGOs, local partners, and policymakers.

Some examples of JILAEE projects include learning how parents form beliefs about investing in their children’s human capital in rural communities in Argentina, investigating if there are role model effects from public leaders on individuals’ tax evasion decisions, and studying how to use incentives to improve employee productivity at a large bank in Argentina.

JILAEE the Network

The second main focus of JILAEE is establishing a network of researchers interested in experimental economic research in Latin America. Towards this end, the team has several ongoing initiatives.

JILAEE has an ongoing seminar series, with talks by leading behavioural, experimental, and development economists. In 2022 and 2023, JILAEE is also hosting a conference for the Economics Science Association (ESA), the professional organization for experimental economists.

JILAEE also hosts online workshops on field experiments and experimental economics for early career researchers. Field research, Dr. Ye says, is a niche field that often requires access to resources and local connections, including in Latin America, and it can often be hard for early career academics to get started. JILAEE seeks to help solve this problem by providing workshops offering training and networking opportunities for academics looking to conduct field experiments. These workshops provide valuable experience to any academic hoping to get started in field research and ultimately aims to grow the number of experimental researchers in the field.

JILAEE also runs a visiting-fellows program, where researchers can visit the centre in Argentina for several months and conduct their own research projects in the field. The program is great for early-career faculty members who want to develop research projects in Latin America, offering the ideal partnership to facilitate such work.

The centre is also working on developing a working paper series where researchers will publish their work and produce policy briefs with relevance for NGOs and government officials, where the initiative’s experimental insights will provide empirical understanding relevant for programs and interventions aimed at economic betterment.

Opportunities for Queen’s Faculty and Students Abound

Dr. Ye hopes that faculty and students will take up the opportunity to become involved with JILAEE.

For Queen’s professors, JILAEE provides a great opportunity to conduct experiments in Latin America. It is such a rich region with limitless research potential, where experimental research can directly assist local partners, NGOs, or policymakers to better understand their subjects and design better policy, ultimately affecting real people’s lives. Dr. Ye hopes that Queen’s faculty members will consider using their academic skills in collaboration with the wide array of research areas and possibilities that exist at JILAEE and become involved in research through the initiative.

The Queen’s-JILAEE connection also provides great opportunities for students. For those interested in working on field experiments, Dr. Ye urges them to consider joining JILAEE in a research assistant position. A research assistant position teaches students the technical and organizational skills they need to conduct their own research, and these skills are valuable both in and outside of academia. Dr. Ye urges all those who are interested in applying their academic prowess in the real world, or desire to work on a project that can meaningfully affect policy, to consider research opportunities available through JILAEE, which can be both academically and spiritually rewarding.

On top of working as a research assistant on a JILAEE field experiment, there is also a great opportunity for students interested in developing their own research projects to make the trip south to Argentina for a few months to JILAEE and do so. JILAEE is always looking for bright young students with a passion for research and a great project idea, and they would love to help facilitate students in developing their own field research and early academic careers. This opportunity could be a perfect chance to produce a PhD thesis, while gaining invaluable academic connections via JILAEE’s networking opportunities—not to mention the opportunity to live and work in beautiful Argentina for a couple of months!

For those who want to get involved from this hemisphere, Dr. Ye notes that all of JILAEE’s events are open to the public and the general economics community. JILAEE would love for academics from Queen’s to join their seminar series or conferences, and further build the Queen’s-JILAEE connection and engage in fruitful academic events. Dr. Ye encourages Queen’s faculty and students to take up these opportunities to connect with a leading experimental economics research initiative in Latin America, and with other academics in the field.

More information about JILAEE can be found at: https://www.jilaee.org


[1] https://www.jilaee.org/about-jilaee

[2] https://www.econ.queensu.ca/about/Karen-Ye