Ancient fossil microorganisms indicate that life in the universe is common

J. William Schopf

J. William Schopf and colleagues from UCLA and the University of Wisconsin analyzed the microorganisms with cutting-edge technology called secondary ion mass spectroscopy.

 

Anew analysis of the oldest known fossil microorganisms provides strong evidence to support an increasingly widespread understanding that life in the universe is common.

The microorganisms, from Western Australia, are 3.465 billion years old. Scientists from UCLA and the University of Wisconsin–Madison report today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that two of the species they studied appear to have performed a primitive form of photosynthesis, another apparently produced methane gas, and two others appear to have consumed methane and used it to build their cell walls.

The evidence that a diverse group of organisms had already evolved extremely early in the Earth’s history — combined with scientists’ knowledge of the vast number of stars in the universe and the growing understanding that planets orbit so many of them — strengthens the case for life existing elsewhere in the universe because it would be extremely unlikely that life formed quickly on Earth but did not arise anywhere else.

“By 3.465 billion years ago, life was already diverse on Earth; that’s clear — primitive photosynthesizers, methane producers, methane users,” said J. William Schopf, a professor of paleobiology in the UCLA College, and the study’s lead author. “These are the first data that show the very diverse organisms at that time in Earth’s history, and our previous research has shown that there were sulfur users 3.4 billion years ago as well.

A microorganism analyzed by the researchers

A microorganism analyzed by the researchers

“This tells us life had to have begun substantially earlier and it confirms that it was not difficult for primitive life to form and to evolve into more advanced microorganisms.”

Schopf said scientists still do not know how much earlier life might have begun.

“But, if the conditions are right, it looks like life in the universe should be widespread,” he said.

The study is the most detailed ever conducted on microorganisms preserved in such ancient fossils. Researchers led by Schopf first described the fossils in the journal Science in 1993, and then substantiated their biological origin in the journal Nature in 2002. But the new study is the first to establish what kind of biological microbial organisms they are, and how advanced or primitive they are.

For the new research, Schopf and his colleagues analyzed the microorganisms with cutting-edge technology called secondary ion mass spectroscopy, or SIMS, which reveals the ratio of carbon-12 to carbon-13 isotopes — information scientists can use to determine how the microorganisms lived. (Photosynthetic bacteria have different carbon signatures from methane producers and consumers, for example.) In 2000, Schopf became the first scientist to use SIMS to analyze microscopic fossils preserved in rocks; he said the technology will likely be used to study samples brought back from Mars for signs of life.

The Wisconsin researchers, led by geoscience professor John Valley, used a secondary ion mass spectrometer — one of just a few in the world — to separate the carbon from each fossil into its constituent isotopes and determine their ratios.

University of Wisconsin professor John Valley

University of Wisconsin professor John Valley

“The differences in carbon isotope ratios correlate with their shapes,” Valley said. “Their C-13-to-C-12 ratios are characteristic of biology and metabolic function.”

The fossils were formed at a time when there was very little oxygen in the atmosphere, Schopf said. He thinks that advanced photosynthesis had not yet evolved, and that oxygen first appeared on Earth approximately half a billion years later before its concentration in our atmosphere increased rapidly starting about 2 billion years ago.

Oxygen would have been poisonous to these microorganisms, and would have killed them, he said.

Primitive photosynthesizers are fairly rare on Earth today because they exist only in places where there is light but no oxygen — normally there is abundant oxygen anywhere there is light. And the existence of the rocks the scientists analyzed is also rather remarkable: The average lifetime of a rock exposed on the surface of the Earth is about 200 million years, Schopf said, adding that when he began his career, there was no fossil evidence of life dating back farther than 500 million years ago.

“The rocks we studied are about as far back as rocks go.”

While the study strongly suggests the presence of primitive life forms throughout the universe, Schopf said the presence of more advanced life is very possible but less certain.

One of the paper’s co-authors is Anatoliy Kudryavtsev, a senior scientist at UCLA’s Center for the Study of Evolution and the Origin of Life, of which Schopf is director. The research was funded by the NASA Astrobiology Institute.

In May 2017, a paper in PNAS by Schopf, UCLA graduate student Amanda Garcia and colleagues in Japan showed the Earth’s near-surface ocean temperature has dramatically decreased over the past 3.5 billion years. The work was based on their analysis of a type of ancient enzyme present in virtually all organisms.

In, 2015 Schopf was part of an international team of scientists that described in PNAS their discovery of the greatest absence of evolution ever reported — a type of deep-sea microorganism that appears not to have evolved over more than 2 billion years.

Moving Hollywood beyond ‘Black Panther’

Gina Prince-Bythewood, left, talks with UCLA Dean Darnell Hunt and Felicia D. Henderson about representation in Hollywood.

 

Two remarkable UCLA alums working in the film and television industries hope that Hollywood is leaping toward a “movement,” not just a “moment” when it comes to celebrating and investing in diversity.

As part of the recent launch of UCLA’s fifth annual Hollywood Diversity Report, Darnell Hunt, dean of the division of social sciences in the UCLA College, welcomed to campus Gina Prince-Bythewood and Felicia D. Henderson to talk about the diversity issues in film and television.

Prince-Bythewood is writer-director of the award-winning 2000 film “Love and Basketball” as well as “Beyond the Lights” and “The Secret Life of Bees.” Her upcoming projects include a film adaptation of author Roxane Gay’s debut novel, “An Untamed State.” Prince-Bythewood is also the first African-American woman to direct a major-studio superhero film, as she takes the helm of Sony’s “Silver and Black,” set in the Spider-Man universe.

Henderson is the creator and executive producer of the BET drama “The Quad,” and co-executive producer of Netflix’s “The Punisher.” Her credits also include “Fringe,” “Gossip Girl,” and the seminal Showtime series “Soul Food.”

“We are seeing a change, but not consistent change,” Henderson said, pointing to the fact that 2013 was a banner year for filmmakers of color, but one that did not play out in the following years. “The more you see a success story like ‘Black Panther,’ while you celebrate it, it also freaks you completely out, because you don’t want it to just be a moment.”

Henderson pointed out the powerful marketing and budget around “Black Panther,” and the ways in which stars like Black-ish’s Tracee Ellis Ross got behind the film — even buying out theaters in neighborhoods so members of the black community could see it.

“How do you make it a consistent change or ‘normal’ to have such movies as opposed to a moment?” said Henderson to the audience of people from campus and the industry at the Meyer and Renee Luskin Conference and Guest Center. “How do we do that so it’s a movement instead of a moment?”

Answering that question and others that seek to explain Hollywood’s slow progress toward gender and racial parity is what makes the Hollywood Diversity Report and its year-over-year tracking incredibly important, she said.

Pat Turner, senior dean of the UCLA College, asks a question at the 2018 Hollywood Diversity Report launch event.

Pat Turner, senior dean of the UCLA College, asks a question at the 2018 Hollywood Diversity Report launch event.

 

As this year’s Hollywood Diversity Report shows, white men still fill a majority of credited roles in front of and behind the camera. And their continued domination of executive suites has a major influence on what kind of projects get a green light, Prince-Bythewood said.

She shared her experience pitching “An Untamed State” to several studios. Prince-Bythewood is an award-winning writer and director, the book upon which the project is based is a critically acclaimed best-seller, and also attached to the project is a three-time Academy Award nominee Michael De Luca. The book and film is survival story about a Haitian-American woman who is abducted, tortured and raped as she is held for ransom.

Prince-Bythewood said the first three pitch meetings were to rooms of white men, who listened politely, but were clearly uninterested.

But there was a palpable difference in the tone of the meeting when she pitched to Fox Searchlight, where the decision makers were two women of color. They bought the project before the meeting was over.

“It was one of the best experiences of my life,” Prince-Bythewood said. “They just got it. They just felt it in their souls. We’re passionate about this project, but they might even be more passionate about it. The people we are pitching to, who are sitting across from us, they are going to greenlight what they respond to.”

During her Oscar acceptance speech this weekend, Frances McDormand, star of “Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri,” called for the industry to use “inclusion riders,” contracts that would require film and television projects to aim for gender and racial parity both on screen and off.

This is something Henderson committed to 15 years ago with “Soul Food,” requiring that half of all the episode directors in the series be women.

“I got a call from the Director’s Guild marveling that just by me doing that, the number of female directors in that year went up 75 percent,” she said. “That should not be. Things should not be so dismal that one showrunner’s choices can make that big of a difference.”

Another UCLA alumna, Ava DuVernay, who directed “A Wrinkle in Time,” which comes out March 9, has taken steps to increase representation behind the camera. The first African-American woman to helm a film with a budget of more than $100 million, DuVernay required all her department heads to be prepared to show proof that they had considered women and people of color for jobs. On her television show “Queen Sugar,” all the episodes have been directed by women.

People from UCLA and the entertainment industry attended the launch event and discussion for the 2018 Hollywood Diversity Report.

People from UCLA and the entertainment industry attended the launch event and discussion for the 2018 Hollywood Diversity Report.

 

Henderson observed that women and people of color are making more progress in television, pointing to Shonda Rhimes as an example. She said she hopes that film and television artists and producers embrace the creation of storylines and casting that specifically highlights the different cultures, behaviors and belief systems of people of color.

Henderson said that for executives the easiest way to show diversity is to hire some black people, which is one of the reasons numbers continue to improve for this section of the population in Hollywood. But if all characters are written with homogenous behavior and attitudes, that’s not really diversity, Henderson said.

Despite “Soul Food’s” critical and popular success, Henderson said doors didn’t exactly fling open for her ideas.

“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m just going to be able pitch all kinds of stories about black folks, this is going to be amazing,’” she said. “And yet what I found literally for five years of trying to pitch things that had the black experience at the center of it was excuses for ‘Soul Food’’s success, rather than a desire to extend it. I got a lot of, ‘Well, it was cable so you could depend on language and nudity,’ as if my storytelling depended on those things, which is incredibly offensive.”

When asked what advice the women would offer students or aspiring artists, Prince-Bythewood said passion and stamina are key.

“‘Love and Basketball’ took a year and a half, every studio turned it down, and then with ‘Beyond the Lights,’ everyone turned that down twice,” she said. “You will get a thousand ‘nos’ in this business so make sure you are passionate about the story you want to tell because that’s going to get you up off the floor and keep fighting.”

Henderson pointed out that for artists of color there is a different reality at play, especially when they are the only person of color in a room.

“I always tell my students, you do not have to be the smartest person in the room, but you do need to be the one who works the hardest,” she said. “Particularly for a person of color, just being as good as everyone else is not good enough.”

A sense of humor is critical, Henderson said. As the only African-American writer for “The Punisher,” all eyes often turn to her when discussing plotlines for the show’s only African-American character.

“I just pick up my cell phone and go, ‘hold on I have to call the committee,’” she joked.

UCLA, KCET team up for environmental storytelling and public media collaboration

UCLA professor Ursula Heise, at right, interviews Karen Mabb, U.S. Navy biologist, about the Green-cheeked parrot.

UCLA professor Ursula Heise, at right, interviews Karen Mabb, U.S. Navy biologist, about the Green-cheeked parrot.

 

Hurricanes, floods, droughts, wildfires, extinctions: with near-constant coverage of disaster scenarios, communities around the country can be forgiven for experiencing environmental news fatigue. How can we engage 21st century audiences with new kinds of environmental stories?

UCLA’s Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies is trying to do just that. In partnership with KCET, the nation’s largest independent public television station, LENS has launched a yearlong collaboration to develop models and media for reporting environmental stories. Allison Carruth, faculty director of LENS and associate professor of English, is spearheading the project, which brings together the fields of anthropology, documentary filmmaking, English and environmental science.

“The collaboration offers an opportunity for faculty and students to craft immersive narratives about regional environmental issues, translating research into public engagement with diverse audiences,” observed Carruth, who is also affiliated with UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.

Faculty participants in the project are training graduate students across disciplines in nonfiction narrative, journalistic writing, new media storytelling, interviewing, field research and video and audio production. At the same time, master’s students in the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television documentary program are producing original documentary shorts under the direction of Kristy Guevara-Flanagan, assistant professor of film and an award-winning documentary filmmaker.

“My time at UCLA has taught me that how people relate to nature is not just a scientific question, it’s a cultural and political one,” said Spencer Robins, who is pursuing his doctorate in English. “It’s vital that we understand the stories people tell about their place in the natural world, and that we think about what new stories could be told. LENS and KCET have created a laboratory where we can experiment with new ways of thinking about these issues.”

Courtney Cecale, a doctoral candidate in anthropology, agreed.

“I’ve very much enjoyed the ability to focus and reframe some of the processes happening quite literally in my own backyard,” Cecale said. “I’ve also appreciated the openness and flexibility that was awarded to us as contributors.”

The first of three planned storylines will go live on kcet.org on Feb. 21. Led by Jon Christensen, LENS co-founder and adjunct assistant professor in IoES, the storyline focuses on the past, present and possible futures of Taylor Yard. Once a hub for Southern Pacific Railroad’s freight trains, Taylor Yard is now an undeveloped and still-contaminated site adjacent to the Los Angeles River. The articles, interactive web features, and a documentary short written and produced by Christensen, who also teaches history at UCLA, Guevara-Flanagan and LENS graduate students address how decisions about the future of Taylor Yard and development along the L.A. River are wrapped up in larger questions about what the future of Los Angeles should look like — and who gets a voice in determining these outcomes.

The next storyline, led by Ursula Heise, the Marcia H. Howard chair in literary studies in the English department at UCLA and who is also a member of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, will consider how Los Angeles has inadvertently become a sanctuary city for non-native animal and plant species that are sometimes endangered in their native habits.

The Green-cheeked parrot in Pasadena and the San Gabriel Mountains is a particularly beloved example and is the focus of a short documentary that Guevara-Flanagan and Heise are producing with UCLA graduate students in the film, television and digital media department. These species raise intriguing questions about human-created urban ecosystems, biodiversity and opportunities for creating sanctuaries for endangered species.

Heise and Christensen are also working with KCET on upcoming episodes of “Earth Focus,” slated to premiere in April 2018 focusing on the global concerns of adaptation and exploring how environmental changes are forcing all living creatures to adapt in order to survive.

This spring, a third storyline led by Carruth will investigate emerging ideas for food sustainability in California and the role of artists, writers and activists in these movements.

“Our relationship with UCLA and LENS has proven invaluable,” said Juan Devis, chief creative officer at KCET. “Their team of researchers, journalists and scientists has provided us with a new multidisciplinary approach to understanding the environment in the 21st century, helping us shape the future of environmental journalism.”

Labor activist Dolores Huerta fires up crowd at UCLA

“How did we get so upside down?” the activist and co-founder of the United Farm Workers asked an enthusiastic audience. Her talk, UCLA’s sixth annual Winston C. Doby Distinguished Lecture, was Feb. 28 at the Fowler Museum’s Lenart Auditorium.

‘Black Panther’ success amplifies findings of UCLA’s Hollywood Diversity Report

“In part, we hope this serves as tool for artists, producers, writers, directors and actors who are seeking funding and support for future projects that appropriately and creatively reflect the gender and ethnic diversity of the United States.”

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel urges students to embrace risk in Startup UCLA roundtable

In a roundtable discussion with UCLA students and Chicago entrepreneurs at Startup UCLA on Feb. 12, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel was adamant that despite all his career accomplishments, it is his failures, not his successes, that continue to teach him his biggest lessons.

For the students in the room, it was exactly what they needed to hear.

“Being young it’s always great to hear advice from someone who’s achieved great success in his career about how we can do that for ourselves,” said fourth-year statistics major Parker Mansfield. “[And to hear about] the mindset we should have while trying to do that and what we should look for on our journey to success.”

Emanuel served in the White House during the Obama and Clinton administrations as chief of staff and senior a dvisor to the president for policy and strategy, respectively, and was a three-term U.S. Representative for Illinois’s 5th congressional district. He has served as mayor of the city of Chicago since 2011.

The roundtable was part of Emanuel’s daylong visit to UCLA, which included delivering the keynote address for the 2018 UCLA College Luskin Lecture for Thought Leadership at UCLA Royce Hall.

Mayor Emanuel visited students in the Maker Space to hear more about their opportunities to experiment with new technologies.

In the afternoon before the lecture, Emanuel visited Startup UCLA with a delegation of Chicago-based technology leaders as part of the Think Chicago Roadshow, Emanuel’s and World Business Chicago’s initiative to visit universities across the country to attract the next generation of tech leaders to the city.

The group toured the Maker Space in Rieber Hall, where students can use 3D printers, laser cutters, software and other tools to create their own projects, and had a peek at the Design & Innovation Living Learning Community in Sproul Hall, which cultivates students’ passions and pursuits around technology, innovation and the entrepreneurial spirit.

Emanuel and the entrepreneurs then sat down with seven undergraduate and two graduate students who had been invited because of their various interests in entrepreneurship. Emanuel discussed efforts to foster a culture of innovation and business leadership in Chicago, and he and the delegation shared their advice for finding success in the entrepreneurial world.

Emanuel shared his vision for Chicago as a city that welcomes and supports business leaders and innovators of all kinds, not just major corporations. He outlined the initiatives he has implemented in order to position Chicago as a hub of innovation, education and business, demonstrating that public policy and entrepreneurship can complement each other and allow both companies and communities to thrive together.

Second-year mechanical engineering major Nikhil Pawar noted that while he has met several technology leaders before, this was the first time he’d had the chance to hear directly from a leader in public service.

“Hearing about the social space, which is something I’m trying to marry into my work, was incredibly useful,” Pawar said.

Anshul Aggarwal, a third-year computer science major, asked Emanuel for his advice on risk management: How does he determine whether an investment of time, money, energy or resources is worthwhile?

Chicago business and innovation leaders joined the mayor to share key career insights with students.

“You have to evaluate what I call the pain/pleasure principle,” Emanuel said. “How much political pain is it going to take to get this and at the end of the day, is it worth it? You’ve got to decide what’s really important and worth taking a swing at and, sometimes you’re going to let other ones just go by.”

Aggarwal said Emanuel’s insights would stay with him for a long time since he sometimes struggles to decide whether a new project is worth taking on.

But Emanuel struck the biggest nerve when he encouraged the students not to be afraid to try something new and to embrace failures as necessary for success. He pointed to two low points in his life—when he nearly died as a teenager and when he was briefly fired from the Clinton administration—as the events that taught him more about his capabilities than any other achievement in his life.

“If you haven’t failed yet, you haven’t succeeded yet,” Emanuel said. “It is better to try and fail than to resent that you never tried.”

Frances Lai, a third-year cognitive sciences major, said Emanuel’s words reassured her that she’s still young and has a lot of time to do something with her life.

Having the opportunity to meet Emanuel and listen to his insights in such an intimate setting “means the world,” Aggarwal said.

“I’m the type of person who learns best finding out what other people have done, seeing what worked for them and applying it,” he said. “[Emanuel and the delegation’s] experiences are something we’re eventually going to go through as well and it’s exciting to be able to see the kinds of things they’ve done and see if we can take that into our lives as well.”

Startup UCLA Executive Director Deanna Evans hopes the students will be inspired by the once-in-a-lifetime experience of participating in a roundtable with Emanuel and the Chicago entrepreneurs.

“The advice he gave them may affirm their current career aspirations or set them on an entirely new course, possibly moving to Chicago to start their career,” Evans said. “I look forward to talking with these students in the future to see how this experience shaped their career journey.”

 

UCLA’s Neil Garg wins country’s leading teaching award and its $250,000 prize

The Cherry Award honors outstanding professors who are extraordinary, inspiring teachers with a positive, long-lasting effect on students and a record of distinguished scholarship.

UCLA students get busy during Summer Sessions

Priority enrollment for summer 2018 opened on February 1, which means that students like Arpi Beshlikyan are already deciding whether to catch up, get ahead or explore future careers.

“I plan on taking two prerequisite courses this summer, Physics 4BL and Computer Science 180,” said Beshlikyan, a second-year computer science and engineering major. Her goal is to have more room in her schedule during the regular academic year to take interesting electives.

She’ll join more than 12,000 other UCLA students who choose to enroll each summer. With 1,000+ new and popular courses as well as intensive summer institutes, UCLA Summer Sessions provides opportunities for incoming, current and visiting students to fulfill graduation requirements, take courses outside their majors and prepare for life after graduation.

Beshlikyan pointed out that since there is no unit minimum during Summer Sessions, she can take only those two courses, allowing her to focus without splitting her time between other courses plus extracurricular activities.

With the campus population at less than half its normal size, Beshlikyan looks forward to enjoying the summer weather and less crowded campus.

“I like the campus when it’s quieter,” she said. “There’s less people and there’s a different feel to it. And it’s easier to find places to study.”

For students who may not be in Los Angeles over the summer, select academic courses are offered online.

Kya Williamson, a fourth-year art major and African American studies minor, took History 10A online during Summer Sessions after her second year. While her mom urged her to take a course so she’d have something to do over the summer, Williamson was excited for the opportunity to learn about the history of American slavery from renowned scholar Robin Kelley, Distinguished Professor and holder of the Gary B. Nash Endowed Chair in U.S. History.

Online courses allow students to complete the readings and assignments in their own time and some discussion sections are conducted via webcam, encouraging all students to be accountable and engaged in the course.

“As long as you stay on top of your work, [online courses] are a great way to get credits,” Williamson said.

Non-resident supplemental tuition is not assessed over the summer, making summer the most affordable time of year for non-California residents to take courses at UCLA.

Students can also flex their creativity and explore future career options through UCLA Summer Institutes, which last from four to eight weeks and attract students from the top universities in the country as well as international students.  Taught by UCLA faculty with topics ranging from architecture to management, these intensive programs allow students to immerse themselves in a field they’re interested in or try out an area of study they’re considering.

Carlie Heuple, a third-year communications and psychology double major, participated in the 2017 Managing Enterprise in Media, Entertainment and Sports (MEMES) Summer Institute offered by the UCLA Anderson School of Management, which introduces students to entertainment and sports marketing and management.

“The [MEMES] Summer Institute helped with my career goals because it introduced me to so much knowledge as well as people that have helped connect me in so many ways,” said Heuple, who sought to expand her knowledge of the sports industry but ended up with much more than that. “I secured an amazing internship for six months solely due to my participation in this course and the help of Professor Mark Francis.”

Registration for summer academic courses is now open for UCLA students. Registration for visiting students opens February 15. Registration for Summer Institutes opens February 15. The Summer Opportunities Fair is on February 13. More information on summer 2018 courses and programs is available on the UCLA Summer Sessions website.

See a ‘spectacular’ lunar meteorite at UCLA’s Meteorite Gallery

Named “La’gad,” the 185-gram meteorite eventually made its way to the Earth, landing in North Africa’s western Sahara Desert; it was recovered in 2015.

Till von Wachter

HOW DATA DRIVE POLICY, AND HOW THE SOCIAL SCIENCES PLAY A PART

By Jessica Wolf

All scientists rely on data derived from a variety of efforts — evidence gathered from experiments, fieldwork, surveys and data generated by government programs, and now increasingly data generated by firms, social media and electronic devices. Social scientists use data to conduct research in many ways, from basic science to direct analyses of policies, and they are regularly invested in data-gathering efforts that could have far-reaching impacts on government policies that affect the public.

Basic science in the social sciences
The ability to explore questions motivated by abstract theories and to solve puzzles that might not otherwise have been tackled are unique services that academic institutions can bring to the world of data-driven policymaking, said Judith Seltzer, UCLA professor of sociology and director of the UCLA California Center for Population Research.

“Basic science is important,” Seltzer said.

Judith Seltzer

Judith Seltzer

“The findings from some basic science projects may not be directly relevant to a specific policy. But these kinds of projects can provide new insights and identify important new questions that can have an eventual impact on policy.”

Seltzer was recently named to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine’s Committee on National Statistics. The committee seeks to improve the statistical methods and information on which public policy decisions are based and works to foster better measurement and understanding of issues ranging from the economy, public health and immigration to the environment and crime.

There are several ways data can inform policy, Seltzer said, from describing the population and how it changes over time, to understanding behavior and causal mechanisms, to evaluating the costs and benefits of programs.

Gaining access to raw data

In September UCLA’s California Census Research Data Center hosted the annual conference of the Federal Statistical Research Data Centers, which included more than 150 participants from UCLA, the Census Bureau and more than 20 other data centers from across the country.

At the meeting, Nancy Potok, chief statistician of the United States, presented findings from the Commission on Evidence-Based Policy, which lays out recommendations for creating a national secure data service that would increase privacy and security measures and create consistent access to big data.

Big data means different things to different people, said Till von Wachter, UCLA professor of economics. It can mean large sets of real-time data derived from devices or the web, or administrative information like medical records. It can also describe smaller data sets with complex elements, such as location-specific inventory management for a company like Amazon.
Recently named associate dean of research for the Division of Social Sciences in the UCLA College, von Wachter is focused on helping faculty to “capitalize on opportunities for cutting-edge research with complex and innovative data sources.“When it comes to big data,” he said, “It’s important for social scientists to be at the table.”

From research to policy

Ideally, for data to have an impact on policy, there should be an existing relationship with government entities, but this is not always the case, von Wachter said.

“A lot in finding out how policy works is about data and research, but if you really want to affect outcomes, that’s unlikely to be sufficient,” von Wachter said. “If you want research to improve the lives of individuals, there has to be a process in place to help with actual implementation.”

Von Wachter also serves as faculty director of the California Policy Lab. CPL’s mission is to partner with California’s state and local governments to generate scientific evidence to solve California’s most urgent problems, including homelessness, poverty, crime and education inequality.

CPL Executive Director Janey Rountree comes from a background in government, and in this pilot year of the lab she has been working to establish relationships with government agencies across L.A. County.

“Connecting researchers to data is important, but it’s only the beginning of a process. If the ultimate goal is to improve public policy and improve people’s lives, we need an active
partnership between government and researchers to understand the data, develop research questions, translate results, and hopefully adopt policy changes as we learn. That’s the investment that we are making.”

New methods to answer the question of causation

A crucial step in the process of creating evidence-based policy is showing causation — illustrating whether or not a government program or policy actually improves the outcome of participants, and how individuals’ choices are affected by the policy, von Wachter said.

This isn’t always easy to do and a straight one-to-one comparison of an individual who participated in a program versus one who did not is not entirely effective.

Till von Wachter

Till von Wachter

Social scientists regularly seek out random experiments or quasi-experiments among a selected population of a program. For example, a team of researchers at Santa Clara County is helping the county to randomly offer housing assistance to certain homeless individuals who would otherwise not have been eligible for housing, and measuring outcomes for the different groups. In another example, a team of researchers in Chicago has randomly assigned kids into different math tutoring schemes, von Wachter said, to see which approaches are more effective.

But the UCLA Center for Social Statistics, which brings together faculty from the social sciences and statistics, is invested in finding a better way to establish causation by developing new quantitative methods, Seltzer said.

“You might not think that the development of new methods is directly policy related, but a new way of asking a question or solving a
puzzle can have an impact on evidence-based policy,” she said.