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A week after Donald Trump’s election, a thirty-year-old cognitive scientist named Maya Shankar purchased a plane ticket to Flint, Michigan. Shankar held one of the more unorthodox jobs in the Obama White House, running the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team, also known as the President’s “nudge unit.” When she launched the team, in early 2014, it felt, Shankar recalls, “like a startup in my parents’ basement”—no budget, no mandate, no bona-fide employees. Within two years, the small group of scientists had become a staff of dozens—including an agricultural economist, an industrial psychologist, and “human-centered designers”—working with more than twenty federal agencies on seventy projects, from fixing gaps in veterans’ health care to relieving student debt. Usually, the initiatives had, at their core, one question: Could the growing body of knowledge about the quirks of the human brain be used to improve public policy?
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?
Shankar got interested in the field as a teen-ager. The daughter of Indian immigrants, she once thought she’d become a classical violinist. (For several years, she was taught by Itzhak Perlman.) A hand injury derailed her musical aspirations, and, while recovering at home, in Connecticut, she happened upon a book by the psychologist Steven Pinker and became enamored of cognitive science.
What did you study?
As an undergraduate at Yale, she conducted research on primates, travelling to a tropical island to study rhesus macaques, with the aim of mapping a feature of cognition known as “essentialism”: “Does a monkey know what makes a coconut a coconut, and an apple an apple?” (On the island, she learned to dodge monkey urine from the tree canopy overhead; the macaques carried a version of herpes B that could be lethal to humans.) Later, as a Rhodes Scholar and doctoral student at Oxford, she visited a famous flavor factory in Ohio, where she tested whether she could hijack the sensory perceptions of professional flavorists: giving them a lime-tinted beverage, say, that had the taste of tangerines.
After Shankar did her postdoctoral research, at Stanford’s Decision Neuroscience Lab, she began looking for a job. In the field of cognitive science, many of the opportunities for an aspiring researcher were of a particular type, geared toward helping to make big companies richer, or rich people thinner, or thin people more alluring on algorithm-based dating sites. Behavioral science’s bro-culture adaptations—the life hack, the quantified self—had proliferated. Shankar worried about her next steps. She didn’t want to spend her life in a suit, or in a lab, or on a remote island, dodging monkey excretions.
How did you land your first job?
One day in 2012, she flew from California to a friend’s wedding in Connecticut. While there, she had tea with her college mentor, the Yale psychologist Laurie Santos. “I feel like the job I want doesn’t even exist,” Shankar told her. She added, sheepishly, “I guess I’ll go into consulting?”
Santos mentioned that she’d just returned from a conference, where she’d heard about the Department of Agriculture’s efforts to put behavioral science into practice to aid children from low-income families. Through a small nudge—a government initiative that automatically enrolled kids in free federal school-lunch programs, by simply cross-checking their eligibility for preëxisting Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (snap) benefits—hundreds of thousands of children were fed, without the shame and the bureaucratic hassle that kept parents from signing them up.
The idea that a minor government modification could decrease a child’s hunger—and perhaps, in turn, improve his or her trajectory in school—stuck with Shankar. It was simple, even obvious, as the best behavioral insights often are. Later, she learned that the Department of Agriculture supported a whole slew of behavioral projects. One, conducted by Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab, found that if school cafeterias rebranded plain vegetables with catchy names—X-Ray Vision Carrots, say, or Power Punch Broccoli—consumption soared.
How did you end up in the White House?
Shankar felt that she’d found her path. She reached out to Sunstein, who had returned to Harvard, and asked if he knew of any openings in government. He gave her the name of a contact at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Shankar sent what seemed like a long-shot pitch to the deputy director, Tom Kalil, to join the office and find ways to weave behavioral insights into the heart of public policy. They met, and, to her surprise, Kalil hired her as a senior science adviser. Shankar was twenty-six.
She moved to Washington, D.C., in early 2013, leaving her bike and her books in California, “in case things didn’t work out.” Even before her new job began, she e-mailed Kalil with the outlines of a broader aspiration. “One of my more ambitious, longer-term goals,” she wrote, “is to begin laying down the foundation for the creation of a U.S.-based behavioral insights team.”
By the start of 2014, with guidance from some of the field’s big names, Shankar had recruited her first five experts from academic institutions and nonprofits. They began working closely with a growing list of agencies, including the Departments of Veterans Affairs, Agriculture, and the Treasury.
That year, the team sought to put together small collaborations that could garner quick results. It formed a partnership with the Department of Education and a nonprofit, uAspire, to find a way to lessen “summer melt.” Typically, twenty to thirty per cent of students in urban districts who were accepted to college didn’t matriculate, owing to last-minute burdens like financial-aid deadlines. The team helped devise a pilot program in which students were sent eight personalized text messages over the summer, prompting them to follow through. Matriculation rates increased by several percentage points. Shankar’s group offered to help other agencies with similar tweaks, to facilitate microloans to farmers, or to reduce the overprescribing of antipsychotics and other drugs by Medicare providers.
Then, on September 15, 2015, President Obama gave the team the ultimate nudge: an unusual Executive Order, titled “Using Behavioral Science Insights to Better Serve the American People.” It formalized the team as an official entity, and urged all federal agencies to “develop strategies for applying behavioral science insights to programs and, where possible, rigorously test and evaluate the impact of these insights.”
Can you give examples of some of the problems your team is trying to solve?
For months, Shankar had been thinking about how to bring behavioral science to bear on the problems in Flint, where a crisis stemming from lead contamination of the drinking water had stretched on for almost two years. She wondered if lessons from the beleaguered city could inform the Administration’s approach to the broader threat posed by lead across America—in pipes, in paint, in dust, and in soil. “Flint is not the only place poisoning kids,” Shankar said.
Shankar understood that Flint’s water crisis went beyond the challenge of protecting locals from lasting bodily harm. It also meant repairing trust, or earning it anew, among residents who’d been told by government officials—often repeatedly, and emphatically—that Flint’s water was safe to drink. As the city’s lead issues evolved, the responsibility for obtaining safe drinking water had fallen in no small part on residents. Many neighborhoods were still waiting for their old lead pipes to be swapped out, and some people perceived inequities in the replacement process. (Only in mid-December did Congress agree to a hundred-and-seventy-million-dollar relief package to help speed up those repairs, and Flint’s recovery as a whole.) In the meantime, residents would have to keep drinking bottled water, or else install special filters at home, which required vigilant maintenance.
Shankar’s team had begun working with the E.P.A. shortly after the President declared a state of emergency, helping to redesign the water-safety fact sheets that residents received. The purpose of Shankar’s trip to Flint in October was to see how the team might take the partnership further. She and her colleague, Higgins, toured a water-processing plant and met with faith-based groups and Red Cross aides. And they visited an elderly man named Gerald as he tried to understand what E.P.A. workers were doing at his house testing his tap. (They’d come by many times before, he said, showing Shankar and her teammate a binder full of documents. But the communications from various agencies were often contradictory, he said, and many residents were left confused.)