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Ethics & Human Research

Public Policy Experiments without Equipoise:
When Is Randomization Fair?

ABSTRACT Government agencies and nonprofit organizations have increasingly turned to randomized controlled trials (RCTs) to evaluate public policy interventions. Random assignment is widely understood to be fair when there is equi-poise; however, some scholars and practitioners argue that random assignment is also permissible when an intervention is reasonably expected to be superior to other trial arms. For example, some argue that random assignment to such an intervention is fair when the intervention is scarce, for it is sometimes fair to use a lottery to allocate scarce goods. We investigate the permissibility of randomization in public policy RCTs when there is no equipoise, identifying two sets of conditions under which it is fair to allocate access to a superior intervention via random assignment. We also reject oft-made claims that alternative study designs, including stepped-wedge designs and uneven randomization, offer fair ways to allocate beneficial interventions.

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