Duncan Thomas, Ph.D.
Norb F. Schaefer Professor of International Studies
Professor of Economics, Global Health and Public Policy
Department of Economics, Duke University
Duncan Thomas is Norb F. Schaefer Professor of International Studies in the economics department at Duke University where he is also a professor of global health and public policy. A native of Zimbabwe where he completed high school, Thomas completed a B.Sc. (Economics and Statistics) at Bristol University, England, and a Ph.D. (Economics) at Princeton University. After being an assistant and associate professor in the Economics Department at Yale, he had a joint appointment in the Economics Department at UCLA and the Labor and Population Program at RAND. He subsequently switched full time to UCLA where he directed the California Center for Population Research (CCPR), and in 2007 moved to Duke.
He has served as vice president of the PAA and served on the Board of Directors. He was president of the Bureau for Research in the Economic Analysis of Development (BREAD) and he is the founding director of the Development Economics program at the National Bureau for Economic Research (NBER).
Broadly, Thomas investigates the inter-relationships between health, human capital and socio-economic status with a focus on the roles that individual, family and community factors play in improving levels of health and well-being across the globe. Most of his work uses data from Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Southern Africa, the United States and West Africa.
The family plays a central role in much of this research. Studies that have highlighted resource allocation and decision-making within households and families have concluded that resources in the hands of mothers have a bigger impact on the health and human capital of their children than resources in the hands of fathers. Links between health and socio-economic status have been explored using observational and experimental methods. Natural experiments, such as economic crises in Indonesia, Russia and the United States, have been leveraged to isolate the causal impact of changes in resources on health of children and adults. The Work and Iron Status Evaluation (WISE), a collaboration with Elizabeth Frankenberg, colleagues at SurveyMeter, Indonesia, and others is a randomized control treatment design that establishes improvements in health (specifically reduced iron deficiency) results in substantial increases in worker productivity among those who are self-employed.
Also in collaboration with Elizabeth Frankenberg and SurveyMeter colleagues, the Study of the Tsunami Aftermath and Recovery (STAR) is a longitudinal study designed to measure the immediate and longer-term consequences of a major natural disaster, the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami which killed about 5% of the population of Aceh, Indonesia. With a large-scale population-representative baseline collected before the tsunami, STAR re-interviewed survivors annually for 5 years and then again 10 years after the tsunami. The research documents both the devastating impact of the tsunami on health and well-being as well as tremendous resilience and stunning recovery as people rebuilt their own lives, those of their families and their communities.
Thomas has invested heavily in collection of high quality data for population research. In addition to WISE and STAR, he has played a role in the design and fielding of the Indonesia Family Life Survey (IFLS), also with Elizabeth Frankenberg and SurveyMeter colleagues. That work has demonstrated the feasibility and importance for science of following movers in population-representative longitudinal studies. Working with Luis Rubalcava a Graciela Teruel, he worked on the Mexican Family Life Survey (MxFLS), a population-representative longitudinal survey, which not only followed movers within Mexico but has also tracked and interviewed movers to the United States and those who have subsequently returned to Mexico.