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We can make economic research more ethical without compromising its quality

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We can make economic research more ethical without compromising its quality

The debate on the ethics of randomised control trials isn’t getting us anywhere – it’s time for solutions, says Stefano Caria

Randomised control trials are one of the most widely used methods for the evaluation of social policies. Yet the ethics of RCTs are coming under increasing scrutiny. In this article for Times Higher Education, Stefano Caria argues that rather than giving up on RCTs altogether, we need to focus on developing this powerful research method to address the ethical controversies that surround it.

RCTs compare the outcomes of a group receiving ‘treatment’ (the policy being tested) against a group receiving no treatment. Crucially, it is entirely random whether an individual is assigned to the treatment or the control group. However, random assignment is not ideal from the point of view of the people who take part in the trial itself: some people will receive no treatment when a treatment could be beneficial to them, while others may receive a treatment that has no effect on them or is even harmful.

Together with a team of colleagues, Stefano developed an algorithm that assigns trial participants to the treatment group that is most likely to benefit them. The algorithm adapts during the trial, monitoring which treatments are most beneficial and assigning new participants to those treatments. The team tested the algorithm in a field experiment designed to help Syrian refugees in Jordan find work – with positive results.

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Stefano Caria (2021), Putting people's welfare first: A new experimental approach to help Syrian refugees find jobs in Jordan, Advantage Magazine, Spring 2021

Stefano Caria, Grant Gordon, Maximilian Kasy, Simon Quinn, Soha Shami and Alexander Teytelboym (2021). An adaptive targeted field experiment: Job search assistance for refugees in Jordan, CAGE working paper (no.547)