Interview with Julia Lane

NYU economist reflects on stumbling into her field, using data for the public good, and lessons from four decades in academia 

August 18, 2022
Julia Lane

Julia Lane is a professor at the New York University Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. She co-founded the Coleridge Initiative, which aims to transform the way governments access and use data. 

When and where were you born? How did this shape you?
Sheppey, Kent, in 1956. My mother was Swedish, and my father was English, but we always spoke Swedish at home. I think being brought up in two cultures and with two languages was a real gift, because it made me interested in other cultures and languages from a very early age. We emigrated to New Zealand (six weeks on a boat!) when I was six, and I think growing up in New Zealand was another gift. At the time it was very egalitarian. At least in my memory, everyone just helped everyone else out, and it was a very kind and generous society.  

When did you realise you wanted to work in academia? Did it always feel like a natural fit?
It happened by accident. I actually wanted to go into foreign affairs – I had done economics and Japanese as an undergraduate, spoke Swedish and had done French, German and Latin in high school – and did well on my interview with the New Zealand foreign affairs office. They told me I needed to get a master’s degree in economics, so I planned to go to Japan for two years to get my Japanese completely fluent, then go to the UK to get my master’s, and then go back to New Zealand. A series of events meant that I ended up at the University of Missouri to get a master’s first. I really enjoyed graduate economics work and met my American husband in the same programme. We both ended up getting PhDs in economics. I didn’t get to Japan for another 25 years!

Is there anything people don’t – but should – know about your field?
Economists have been incredibly innovative and careful in using new types of data to answer really important questions that have massive impacts on policy. One of last year’s Nobel laureates in economics, David Card, showed (with the late Alan Krueger) that increasing the minimum wage didn’t necessarily reduce employment – quite contrary to prior thinking. The impact of that finding on minimum wage policies was far-reaching and affected the lives of millions of people. Another example is work by a colleague of mine, Tatiana Homonoff, on the effect of taxes versus bonuses on reducing plastic bag use. She found taxes reduced plastic bag use by about 40 per cent; bonuses had no impact. That finding, and others like it, had a massive impact on waste and pollution. In the old days, you would have had to convince a stat agency to run a survey – now there are super-creative people pulling together data to inform policy almost in real time. The profession is now answering questions by patching together data from a lot of different sources. This creates a lot of hard questions about measurement, coverage, causality and bias, but it represents a new frontier for understanding human behaviour.  

You’ve published more than 80 articles and 13 books – no mean feat. What academic achievement are you most proud of?
It is having founded or contributed to the establishment of so many data infrastructures that have contributed to the public good: the Longitudinal-Employer Household Dynamics Program at the Census Bureau; the Star Metrics/UMetrics programme that led to the establishment of the Institute for Research on Innovation and Science at the University of Michigan; the New Zealand Integrated Data Infrastructure, which holds data from across various sectors; the NORC Data Enclave supporting research access to confidential data; the Patentsview project to increase the usability of patent data; and the Coleridge Initiative to use data more effectively in government decision-making. They have all changed the way large numbers of scientists been able to use data and evidence to think about economic problems and that feels wonderful. Also being awarded the Distinguished Fellow award by the New Zealand Association of Economists. I’m still the only woman. It meant an enormous amount to me.

You’ve researched the exclusion of women in academia – have there been ways you’ve been excluded as a female in economics or in academia?
It’s hard to know if you’re excluded because you’re a woman or because you just don’t have the right background and skills. One of the things that resonated with me in the survey responses is that women still don’t know when or how to speak up to ensure that they can make the case to be included. If you speak up too much, it can be just as harmful as speaking up too little.

How do you keep going when the going gets rough?
It’s really hard staying the course when you have to be really pushy and determined. There are many sleepless nights where I feel as though I’ve gone too far, and upset the applecart one time too many. On a personal level, people can be quite cruel. I’ll never forget an Australian who ribbed me about being like a kangaroo (ie, continuously pregnant) when I gave two seminars two years apart, and was pregnant both times! It’s helped a lot to have a strong network of family and friends who believe in you.

When you’re not working, how do you unwind?
I play squash, which I really enjoy, I love to cook for friends, and go for long walks with family. I also couldn’t live without a regular glass of good wine!

As a senior academic, are there any particular milestones you still hope to hit in your career?
The work I’m doing right now is probably the hardest yet, and I hope to have the highest impact. A team of us – at Johns Hopkins University, in its virtual Institute for Scientific Software, Elsevier, the University of Texas Advanced Computing Center, and New York University – are trying to build the equivalent of an Amazon.com for data. The biggest gap with all the new data that is becoming available is that it is very hard to find out who else has worked with the data – so we are building AI tools to create a search and discovery platform.

What would you like to be remembered for?
Professionally? Working hard, having a lot of fun, and contributing to the public good. Personally? Having always put my family first.

pola.lem@timeshighereducation.com

CV

1982-83 assistant professor of economics, Western Illinois University

1984-90 assistant and associate professor of economics, University of Louisville

1990-2001 assistant, associate and full professor of economics, American University

1992-2006 World Bank (consultancies and on sabbatical)

2000-04 director, Employment Dynamics Program and principal research associate, The Urban Institute

2004-05 programme director, economics, National Science Foundation

2005-08 senior vice-president and director, Economics, Labor, and Population, NORC at the University of Chicago

2008-12 senior programme director, Science of Science and Innovation Policy Program, National Science Foundation

2012-15 senior managing economist and fellow, American Institutes for Research

2015- professor, Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, New York University


Appointments

Sian Leah Beilock has been named the next president of Dartmouth College. The cognitive psychologist, currently president of Barnard College, will take on the role in July 2023, succeeding Philip Hanlon. She previously served as executive vice-provost of the University of Chicago. “Sian is a leader with the aspirational vision to build our research enterprise, further our tradition of excellence in undergraduate education, and expand our global impact,” said Elizabeth Cahill Lempres, chair of the board of trustees.

James Miller will join the University of the West of Scotland as principal in November. Thought to be the first nurse to lead a Scottish university, Professor Miller has been deputy vice-chancellor of Glasgow Caledonian University since 2015. He was previously director of the Open University in Scotland and chief executive of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow. He said the university’s “enviable” record on widening participation has seen it “transform the lives of thousands of students” and it was a “privilege” to join at “such an important time”.

Charles Lees has been appointed executive dean of City, University of London’s new School of Policy and Global Affairs, which has been formed out of the former School of Arts and Social Sciences. He was previously professor of government at Flinders University. City has also created a School of Communication and Creativity, which will be headed by former arts and social sciences dean Anna Whitelock.

Andrew Stockley has been appointed pro vice-chancellor and head of the College of Arts and Law at the University of Birmingham. He is currently executive dean of the law school at City, University of London, and before that was dean of Auckland Law School.

Swinburne University of Technology has appointed Simon Ridings as deputy vice-chancellor, external engagement. He was previously deputy vice-chancellor, international at Edith Cowan University.

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