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Researchers work to prevent CASSEL closure

By hong chen

May 28, 2013 12:53 a.m.

UCLA researchers are trying to prevent the closure of a prominent social science lab, which is scheduled to shut down early next month in order to create space for offices and classrooms.

The California Social Science Experimental Laboratory, commonly known as CASSEL, is one of the largest experimental economics organizations in the world, said Hugo Hopenhayn, the lab’s director and an economics professor at UCLA.

CASSEL is located in the Public Affairs building and houses 70 individual workstations where student subjects can take part in games as part of large-scale experiments, Hopenhayn said.

The lab has conducted more than 2,500 social science experiments, he said.

Elizabeth Landaw, assistant dean of social sciences, said the dean of social sciences – Alessandro Duranti – plans to close the lab indefinitely starting June 7.

Duranti declined to comment on his decision to close CASSEL and referred all inquiries to Landaw.

The lab’s space will alternatively be used for office and classroom spaces, Landaw said.

“In this current economic and spatial state, there simply isn’t enough room for (CASSEL),” she said.

CASSEL will be the second UCLA lab to close this year, as the UCLA’s Laboratory of Neuro Imaging expects to move to the University of Southern California this summer.

However, officials are trying to relocate the lab to prevent CASSEL from shutting down indefinitely.

The lab opened in 2000 as a collaboration between UCLA, the California Institute of Technology and the National Science Foundation.

Thomas Palfrey, a professor at Caltech and one of the original founders of the lab, said the lab was supported by the dean of social science up until two years ago when the need for office and classroom space became critical in the social sciences division.

$2 million was invested to build the lab, which focused on experimental economics and game theory, but has since expanded to various social sciences ranging from anthropology to marketing strategies, Hopenhayn said.

The lab currently employs seven staff members and two lab directors, and operates on an annual budget of about $105,000.

There are more than 7,000 students registered in CASSEL’s subject pool database, Hopenhayn said. Students can sign up to participate in CASSEL’s experiments through an online database and are paid about $20 per hour, he said.

Members of the research community at UCLA have said they do not agree with Duranti’s decision to close the lab.

Alexander Stremitzer, a professor at UCLA School of Law and senior researcher at CASSEL, said that given CASSEL’s respected and well established reputation within the academic community, he does not understand the decision to close the lab.

“Why go from something so big and resource-consuming to nothing at all, especially when other departments are willing to help?” Stremitzer said.

The lab has not been used as frequently in recent years because there are fewer experimental economists at UCLA, Hopenhayn said.

But the field of experimental economics is growing, Stremitzer said.

Other universities, such as the University of Southern California and Yale University, are trying to open experimental labs of their own, Stremitzer said.

Administrators and the lab’s directors are working with departments like the Anderson School of Management and the UCLA School of Law to see if it is possible to relocate the lab and keep it from shutting down indefinitely, Hopenhayn said.

One compromise proposed last year was to downsize the lab to half of its original size and to use that space for the social sciences dean’s own purposes. The plan fell through, however, and no compromise was ever reached, Hopenhayn said.

Lab directors have also tried to secure additional funding from outside sources to pay for the lab’s upkeep.

The lab recently secured a $370,000 grant from the National Science Foundation and lab officials hope to secure more donations to make the lab self-sufficient by the end of the year, Hopenhayn said.

The current plan is to downsize and relocate CASSEL to the graduate student computer lab on the second floor of Bunche Hall using the grant from the National Science Foundation, Hopenhayn said.

The economics department plans to meet sometime in the next two weeks to discuss the relocation of CASSEL.

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