Oct. 19, 2000
Vol. 20 No. 3

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    Heckman wins Nobel for research on selective samples

    By William Harms, Steve Koppes and Peter Schuler
    News Office

    James Heckman, the Henry Schultz Distinguished Service Professor in Economics, was awarded the 2000 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences on Wednesday, Oct. 11. He shares the award equally with Daniel McFadden of the University of California, Berkeley.

    James Heckman, the Henry Schultz Distinguished Service Professor in Economics, wins the 2000 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.
    A member of the University faculty since 1973, Heckman is a prominent scholar of the impact of social programs and the methodologies used to measure their effects. The Royal Swedish Academy cited Heckman for his development of theory and methods for analyzing selective samples.

    “Heckman has developed statistical methods of handling selective samples in an appropriate way,” the academy wrote. “He has also proposed tools for solving closely related problems with individual differences unobserved by the researcher; such problems are common, e.g. when evaluating social programs or estimating how the duration of unemployment affects chances of getting a job. Heckman is also a leader of applied research in these areas.”

    He is the sixth University faculty member to win the economics Nobel since 1990, the 21st economics Nobelist who has been a student, faculty member or researcher at the University, and the 72 Nobelist in any field who has studied or worked here.

    Heckman was attending an economics conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, when he learned of the award. President Randel commented on Heckman’s research and several of Heckman’s colleagues made remarks and answered questions for the media at a press conference held in Mandel Hall.

    “The entirety of the University community and its alumni take great pleasure in this. We bask in reflected glory,” said President Randel at the press conference. “It’s not as if this hasn’t happened to the University before and I’m confident this won’t be the last time. Each and every one, however, is a signal occasion and Professor Heckman’s recognition in this way is something in which we take a very great deal of pride. It’s an inspiration to all of us to continue the great tradition of work in economics, but also in other disciplines here at the University.”

    Gary Becker, a colleague of Heckman’s in the Economics Department and the 1992 Nobel laureate in economics, offered an explanation of why so many of Chicago’s faculty win the Nobel Prize. “The Economics Department at Chicago has had a remarkable run, probably the greatest run of any department of any field in terms of achieving Nobel Prizes,” he said. “And so, everybody in the department, students and faculty, share in that honor and pleasure. Now, the question is ‘why is it’? If all departments could answer that question, it would not only be Chicago that wins all these awards. But I’ll try to give you what I think has been important for our department–getting people early on in their careers. Almost everybody in our department who’s won the Nobel Prize and others who will win the Nobel Prize, we attracted prior to their major work. Now, that’s not easy to do.

    “When somebody has done major work, it’s usually pretty well-recognized, so a lot of schools want to get these people, and that’s fine. But to attract people prior to the work takes some courage in putting, so to speak, your chips in places where there’s a great deal of uncertainty. I think we’ve done that, and the reason I think we’ve been able to do that successfully is that we have generally, despite our reputation as a highly conservative department, looked at people who do a couple of things mainly. One, they take economics seriously. They treat it not as a game to be played by clever academics, but as a field that can contribute greatly to the understanding and hopefully to the solution of major economic and social questions. That’s what we look for. People who take economics seriously and are working on significant economic problems.”

    Heckman’s research has given policymakers important new insights in such areas as education, job-training programs, minimum-wage legislation, anti-discrimination law and civil rights. He is the author of Longitudinal Analysis of Labor Market Data (1985) and numerous articles on labor, education and civil-rights policies.

    Several of Heckman’s book manuscripts are currently under review, including one on evaluating social programs and another on performance standards. He also has recently completed a path-breaking study and book manuscript (forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press) on the impact of the Job Training Partnership Act–a federal job-training program implemented in 1983–on program participants and the economy. This study included researching the effectiveness of government job-training programs in comparison with private training programs.

    In the early 1990s, his pioneering research on the outcomes of people who obtain the GED certificate received national attention. His findings, which questioned the alleged benefits of the degree, spurred debates across the country on the merits of obtaining the certificate.

    Heckman’s latest work is on estimating heterogeneity in responses to education. That research was presented as the Fisher Schultz Lecture at the world meetings of the Econometric Society this past August.

    He was born in Chicago in 1944 and received his B.A. in 1965 from Colorado College, his M.A. in 1968 and his Ph.D. in 1971 from Princeton University, and an honorary M.A. in 1989 from Yale University. He has served on the faculties at Yale University, Columbia University and New York University.

    Heckman’s research combines both methodological and empirical interests in evaluating the impact of a variety of social programs on the economy and on the society at large. He has written on the impact of civil rights and affirmative action programs in the United States; the impact of taxes on labor supply and human capital accumulation; the impact of public and private job training on earnings and employment; the impact of unionism on labor markets in developing countries; and the impact of skill-certification programs. Currently, he is working on the impact of regulation and deregulation in Latin American labor markets. In addition, Heckman has shown developed general-equilibrium models of the earnings equation and has shown the importance of accounting for general equilibrium in evaluating large-scale social programs.

    He also has contributed substantially to the literature both in applied and theoretical econometrics. His methodological work on selection bias and the evaluation of social programs is widely used as is his research on the analysis of heterogeneity in consumer preferences and in the analysis of longitudinal data. This analysis is continued in his recent research on estimating heterogeneity in returns to schooling and job training. He has a series of influential papers on the identifiability of broad classes of econometric models.

    His 1995 Harris Lectures at Harvard University, “The Economic Approach to Social Program Evaluation,” are currently under revision for publication by Harvard University Press.

    Heckman has received numerous honors for his research. He is a fellow of the Econometric Society, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the National Academy of Sciences. He received the John Bates Clark Award of the American Economic Association in 1983.