Science lab spotlight

Data-driven policy for a better world

Blueprint Labs uses economic models to help form policy in healthcare, education, and the workforce

21 percent of kidneys are discarded in the U.S. annually [1]. Under the current kidney placement system, after an organ donor has passed away, kidney recipients are asked sequentially, according to a priority list, whether or not they will accept the kidney. Since kidney transplants are time sensitive, it is often difficult for transplant coordinators to contact recipients in time.

Developing strategies to lower this discard rate and improve the kidney placement rate is one of the many problems MIT’s Blueprint Labs focuses on. Blueprint Labs is an interdisciplinary group that uses economics- and data-oriented approaches to tackle problems in healthcare, education, and workforce policy. In ongoing work, the lab is developing a machine learning tool to help predict whether a given kidney recipient will accept a transplant. This tool may be used in conjunction with the transplant coordinator’s judgment to determine what to do with kidneys that have to be transplanted quickly. “This algorithm may be useful for lowering the kidney discard rate by expediting kidney placements in a more targeted manner,” said Nikhil Agarwal, a professor of economics and co-director of the group.

Within the field of healthcare, the lab has also worked on addressing inefficiency in kidney exchange programs. In the realm of transplantation, kidney exchange occurs when a donor-recipient pair is not compatible but “swapping” with a different kidney donor pair would make a compatible form. More compatible swaps can be made through a chain of swaps; however, finding the most efficient chains is difficult without accurate models. Research from Blueprint Labs has identified modifications that could be made to current kidney exchange algorithms to improve the efficiency of kidney exchange. The modifications are currently being implemented in the Alliance for Paired Kidney Exchange — the second-largest kidney exchange platform in the nation.

As is evident from both of these projects, Blueprint Labs works on two major research areas within data and economics: market design and research design. Market design focuses on how to efficiently and equitably allocate scarce resources, similar to the kidney placement system, while research design focuses on understanding the impact policies or interventions will have, similar to the modifications developed for kidney exchange platforms.

Yet Blueprint Labs’ research extends far beyond healthcare. Using market and research design, the lab also conducts research with applications in education and the workforce. The lab primarily uses economic and statistical models to tackle problems in these areas. In education, Blueprint Labs has studied the impact of school busing and lottery admissions. In workforce research, the group has studied discrimination among U.S. employers and how AI technology impacts workers. It is this combination of topical interests and its economic toolkit that makes Blueprint Labs distinct from other research groups. “Blueprint Labs is a unique place. I cannot think of any other economics lab where this type of work is being done,” said Agarwal.

The group also works closely with policymakers and practitioners to implement the evidence-based solutions they develop. “While primarily a research lab, it is a great platform for research outreach,” said Agarwal. Blueprint Labs hosts meetings between academics, practitioners, and policymakers to help improve policy and promote an open exchange of ideas. It is this collaboration with interdisciplinary groups that allows Blueprint Labs to have a more complete picture of its research areas beyond pure academia. “Evidence is part of the puzzle; it does not tell you everything that is necessary,” said Agarwal. Facilitating these discussions between academics and practitioners is essential to making the models and recommendations developed by Blueprint Labs a reality. In line with its work in market and research design for education, the lab was also instrumental in organizing a summer school for international PhD students to collaboratively learn about market-design research.

While tackling problems across diverse fields and working to address issues in social policy, the glue that binds Blueprint Labs together is its economics and data background. Wielding this expertise, Blueprint Labs is working to approach policy issues from a unique, data-driven perspective. “There is no other place in the world that does this, in such a setting,” Agarwal said.

[1] Li, M. T., King, K. L., Husain, S. A., Schold, J. D., & Mohan, S. (2021). Deceased donor kidneys utilization and discard rates during COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. Kidney International Reports, 6(9), 2463–2467.