The journey from academic insights to changing lives can be fickle and slow. These economists take on the challenge.

In the movies, academic books tumble from their shelves as a military helicopter sets down in the front yard: “Professor, we have to go—your government needs you.”

For Janet Currie, the summons earlier this year was less dramatic—but still not exactly convenient. It was the end of the week, and the White House was calling: Could she be in D.C. on Tuesday?

“The first thing I thought was, ‘No, I can’t do that,’” said Currie, an Institute advisor and professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton. She had just started a visiting professorship across the country. The White House wanted to talk about removing lead water pipes, a topic she hadn’t worked on for a few years and that had already received funding in the 2021 infrastructure bill. It wasn’t clear how much time she would have or who would be in the audience.

“Then I just thought about it a little more,” Currie said. “And I thought, ‘Well, I could actually do this. And I probably should do this.’”

Good call. Come Tuesday, she found herself in the Roosevelt Room for a solid hour with the president, vice president, and much of the Cabinet and economic team. A follow-up courtesy tour was interrupted when President Biden called her back to the Oval Office for more conversation.

While noting the importance of the recent infrastructure investment, Currie used her moment to shift policymakers’ attention to something new: rigorous childhood testing for lead. “In Flint, if those kids were being properly tested for lead, they would’ve discovered what was going on much earlier,” said Currie. Public health “is also a part of our infrastructure. And I think I was able to make that point successfully by putting it in that context.”

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This article is featured in the Fall 2022 issue of For All, the magazine of the Opportunity & Inclusive Growth Institute.