Akcigit Receives 2019 Max Planck-Humboldt Research Award

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UChicago economist’s innovative research honored with €1.5 million prize; Akcigit will study Germany’s east-west divide by turning a new lens on data

As a doctoral student in economics, Prof. Ufuk Akcigit found theoretical models to be too abstract, too untethered from hard, real-world data. So he decided to fill the gap, developing a way to ground theory on a deep statistical foundation. That pioneering approach led him a decade later to the Kenneth C. Griffin Department of Economics at University of Chicago—and now, has earned him a prestigious prize that can further the practical applications of his research.

It was a very exciting outcome for me...This is not about a particular paper. It was the appreciation of my entire research agenda.

On Sept. 19, Akcigit was named winner of the Max Planck-Humboldt Research Award, given annually to innovative researchers outside Germany to fund work within the country. Akcigit will receive 1.5 million euros to conduct five years of research on the economic gap between eastern and western Germany, as well as 80,000 euros in personal prize money. “It was a very exciting outcome for me,” said Akcigit, who has helped shape how scholars think about economic growth and innovation. “This is not about a particular paper. It was the appreciation of my entire research agenda.”

Akcigit plans to use the award to investigate how and why eastern Germany continues to lag behind its western counterpart, even three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall. He will collaborate with the Halle Institute for Economic Research, which holds some of the most extensive economic data available on the region’s firms and individuals. The partnership provides Akcigit a chance to tackle a question that has lingered on his mind for years. “I’ve always been curious, but I never had the occasion to study it in detail because it requires some rich microdata,” said Akcigit, a Turkish citizen who was born in Germany. “You need to have uniquely detailed information. Until now, I didn’t have this first piece.” By applying his research approach, Akcigit plans to interrogate even the basic assumptions undergirding economic policy, such as federal funding for research and development in Germany. Challenging such conventions, he said, will pave the way for stronger data-driven policy—even if some of that evidence confirms existing theories.

Akcigit joined the Kenneth C. Griffin Department of Economics at UChicago in 2015 for these opportunities to impact the world through economic analysis. By combining macroeconomic and microeconomic perspectives, he has produced research cited by numerous reports, including those issued by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the administration of President Barack Obama. Akcigit is currently consulting with the IMF, the Danish Ministry of Science and Education and the Central Bank of the Republic of Turkey—analyzing for them the role and effectiveness of industrial policies.

Making his latest honor “extra special,” Akcigit said, is the fact that he is the first person to be recognized in the social sciences. The Max Planck-Humboldt Research Award was inaugurated last year with the selection of University of Edinburgh astrophysicist Catherine Heymans, and will continue to alternate each year between the natural and engineering sciences, the humanities and social sciences, and the life sciences. The award is funded by Germany’s Federal Ministry for Education and Research.

The next five years will allow Akcigit to help train the next generation of economists. He plans to use his funding to build a team of scholars in Germany to work in conjunction with his existing team of UChicago students and postdocs. The new team, which will consist of about six members, will draw primarily from the Halle Institute. The two teams will meet once a week via teleconference, with Akcigit also traveling occasionally to Europe. That type of international collaboration could foster research breakthroughs in both countries.

“Bringing cutting-edge research to Germany—that is an important goal of the award,” said Anja Karliczek, Federal Minister of Education and Research. “We hope that Ufuk Akcigit’s empirically influenced research results will lead to a more precise understanding of the causes of the economic differences between East and West Germany.” Karliczek will present the award to Akcigit on Nov. 5 alongside Martin Stratmann, president of the Max Planck Society; and Hans-Christian Pape, president of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. In addition, they will honor University of Texas psychologist Elliot Tucker-Drob with the Max Planck-Humboldt Medal, which comes with a prize of 60,000 euros. - credit: Jack Wang/UChicago News (Photo credit: Victor Rubow, Max Planck Society/Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.)

Heckman Receives Prestigious Friendship Award from China

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Nobel Laureate James J. Heckman, the Henry Schultz Distinguished Service Professor in Economics at the University of Chicago, has received the Friendship Award from the Chinese government.

Established in 1991, the Friendship Award is the highest honor issued by the Chinese government to foreign experts. Awardees are chosen for their outstanding contributions to China’s economic and social progress. The award is not only presented in recognition of the foreign expert’s contribution to the Chinese but also a symbol of friendship. Approximately 50 awards are granted each year; this year 42 were awarded.

Heckman is director of the Center for the Economics of Human Development at the University of Chicago, which uses rigorous empirical research to determine effective human capital policies and program design. One of the center’s capstone projects is the ChinaReach Project, a groundbreaking early childhood randomized control trial designed to evaluate the joint impact of China’s Children Nutrition Improvement Project in Poverty-stricken Areas (CNNIP) and the Jamaica Parenting and Psychosocial Stimulation Curriculum.

In 2018, CEHD launched a collaborative research initiative with the Institute for Economic and Social Research (IESR) at Jinan University with the aim of investigating human flourishing. The study of human flourishing examines the circumstances under which people are able to develop the skills needed to thrive in our current economy. The UChicago-Jinan Initiative focuses on the context of China and facilitates academic exchange between The University of Chicago and Jinan University.

“Our joint research with Professor Heckman will not only contribute to general knowledge, but will also help China to better cope with its pressing practical challenges,” said Shuaizhang Feng, Dean of IESR.

Professor Heckman was also invited to give the acceptance speech on behalf of all the recipients at this year’s award convocation, held September 30, as part of China's 70th National Day Ceremony.

Sherman Shapiro, UChicago Ph.D. Economics, 1925-2019

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From the family of Dr. Sherman Shapiro, who passed away on June 22, 2019:

"Sherman Shapiro gained his Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Chicago in the early 1960s, and kept in touch regularly with the department. His education was key to his world view and progress in life. In his 94-year-long life, he was the Assistant to the Comptroller of the Currency for the U.S. Government, he was an Assistant professor of Economics at University of Texas, Austin, Associate Professor of Economics at Notre Dame, and Department Chairman and Professor of Economics at University of Illinois, Circle Campus. He was also the Senior Economist for the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. He was a consultant to top banks and S&L's across the Chicago area. His Ph.D. from the University of Chicago was a big step forward for a boy born into poverty, and he used his degree both as an educator and to help the nation.

He is survived by his wife, Ellen; his two sons, Carl Shapiro and David Shapiro, and two grandchildren, Eva and Ben. One of his grandchildren, Eva Sierra Shapiro, received her Ph.D. in Economics from University of California, Santa Cruz, on June 16, about 1 week before Sherman's passing on June 22, around midnight. If one wishes to make a donation, please contribute to the poor and needy. Thank you for passing this news to his friends.
 
Ellen, David and Carl Shapiro"

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