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Research Implements Virtual Consultants Program

The Richmond Fed has a longstanding tradition of inviting prominent economists to visit the Research department as short-term consultants. When the COVID-19 pandemic put an end to travel, the department had to get creative to maintain its engagement with researchers at other institutions—prompting Richmond economists Claudia Macaluso, Nico Trachter and Russell Wong to develop a Virtual Consultant (VC) program, which launched in February.

In addition to meeting the traditional goal of exchanging ideas, the program has enabled the department to be more inclusive. “The virtual format takes some things away from us, but it also gives us a lot more flexibility,” Macaluso said. “For example, it can be tough to travel if you have a family or a disability, so we’ve been able to broaden the set of people we can invite. Economics has been scrutinized recently for excluding women and people of color. This program has given us new ways to seek ideas and engage with people.”

The first two visitors were Corina Boar of New York University and Nitya Pandalai-Nayar of the University of Texas at Austin. Upcoming consultants are Eduardo Dávila (Yale University), Ariel Burstein (University of California, Los Angeles), Kevin Donovan (Yale University) and Monika Piazzesi (Stanford University).

During their week-long virtual visits, the consultants participate in a variety of activities, including presenting their work at brown-bag luncheons, during one-on-one meetings with Richmond Fed economists and at networking events. Their sessions also have included yoga, meditation and group games, and the networking events have been open to the entire department, not just economists, and even their families (and more than a few pets). “People are more than their work—and the best knowledge exchange happens when we take that into account,” Macaluso said.

For the Bank’s economists, the VC program is a valuable opportunity to meet with the best and the brightest in the field. For the consultants, it’s a chance to get feedback on their work, which is an important step in the research process. “Presenting our work to other economists—and sometimes being challenged by them—forces us to sharpen our thinking and consider different approaches to solving a problem,” Wong said.

Trachter noted  that it’s also an opportunity for the consultants to learn more about the Fed. “Sometimes people in the profession aren’t familiar with the variety of the work we do here. ‘Oh, you also do microeconomics? You’re studying climate change?’ So they discover more colleagues they can co-author and share data with.”

Macaluso said she expects the Research department will continue to offer a virtual option to consultants even after in-person visits resume. “We still want to use technology to be more inclusive,” she said. “People now see that this is possible and beneficial. That’s a big victory.”

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