Economic research

Starving for knowledge

Economists look at more than gdp when choosing countries to study

ECONOMIC RESEARCH can reverberate beyond the ivory tower. In 2003 a study of Kenyan schools found that treating intestinal worms improved attendance. After similar work confirmed the policy’s benefits, one author, Michael Kremer, founded an NGO that treats 280m children a year.

Mr Kremer’s work was unusually impactful, but reflects a pattern of research improving policy. One study found that telling Brazilian mayors about the gains from sending reminder letters to taxpayers sharply increased their chances of doing so. Yet many similar countries attract far fewer studies. This can leave policymakers fumbling in the dark (see Free exchange).

To measure this problem, we turned to EconLit, a database curated by the American Economic Association with 910,000 journal articles from 1990-2019. It only tracks papers with…