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'Genius' grant for MIT economist

Esther Duflo receives MacArthur Fellowship for transformative work on economic development; has brought field experiments to studies of poverty around the world
Economist Esther Duflo
Economist Esther Duflo
L. Barry Hetherington

MIT economist Esther Duflo, whose research has helped change the way governments and aid organizations address global poverty, was named today as a recipient of a 2009 MacArthur Fellowship — the prominent "genius" grant for innovative work.

Duflo, the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics at MIT, and director of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), was one of 24 recipients named this year for their "exceptional originality in and dedication to their creative pursuits." MacArthur Fellowships are given to honorees in a wide range of endeavors. They carry a $500,000 purse, which recipients may use as they see fit.

Duflo, 36, learned about the award last week in a phone call from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. "It was definitely out of the blue," she says.

As she sees it, the MacArthur Fellowship is likely to help elevate awareness of all her colleagues who work to alleviate poverty. "That's the best thing about it," says Duflo. "I'm a little bit humbled, because this is not only about me, but the entire J-PAL lab. It is a collective enterprise."

Duflo, who received her PhD from MIT's Department of Economics in 1999, has seen her research become highly influential in a relatively short time. In frequent collaboration with colleagues, including Abhijit Banerjee, Ford International Professor of Economics at MIT, she has pursued economic studies that emphasize controlled field experiments as a way of determining what types of foreign aid and investment are most effective. Such studies address the long-running, difficult questions of how aid money can to be used efficiently, and what kinds of programs can have long-term positive effects in the developing world.

A global economics laboratory

Duflo's studies often replicate the effects of randomized medical trials, by applying a local aid program to one set of people, and comparing the results to a control group that did not participate in the program. For instance, a study in India by Duflo (and economists Rema Hanna of Harvard and Stephen Ryan of MIT) showed that schoolteachers were much more likely to show up for work when they participated in a monitoring system that offered them financial incentives; the system also led to better student achievement.

However, this kind of research often shows that people do not always act to maximize their financial gains, contrary to what some economists have theorized, and suggests that aid programs should be tailored to local cultures and economic practices. Recent work by Duflo (and economists Michael Kremer of Harvard and Jonathan Robinson of The University of California, Santa Cruz) has shown that the most successful way of getting farmers in Kenya to use optimum amounts of fertilizer involves giving them modest incentives — free fertilizer delivery — soon after a harvest.

Duflo has also sought to help colleagues use similar experimental methods. Along with Banerjee and Sendhil Mullainathan (now at Harvard), Duflo founded J-PAL in 2003 as a center within MIT's Department of Economics. It has since grown into a research network linking professors at 21 universities; researchers affiliated with J-PAL are currently running over 100 studies in 30 countries. Beyond its MIT headquarters, J-PAL also has regional offices — in Paris, France, and Chennai, India, and a new one opening later this year in Santiago, Chile — that support fieldwork and disseminate the results to regional policy-makers.

The World Bank, among other institutions, has begun funding experimental, randomized studies as part of its own efforts to fight poverty. As far-flung as J-PAL and its influence has become, however, Duflo sees both her own work and J-PAL very much as a product of the distinctive research culture at MIT.

"My advisers [Banerjee and Joshua Angrist] were critical in shaping my thesis," says Duflo. "And when we wanted to start J-PAL, we got a lot of support and trust from the faculty, department chair, dean and provost. MIT saw the value of putting science into action, and taking research into the world."

The MacArthur Fellowship adds to a series of honors Duflo has obtained recently. Earlier in 2009, she was the first recipient of the Calvó Armengol International Prize from the Barcelona Graduate School of Economics; became a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; and delivered a lecture series at the prestigious College de France in Paris, having been named that institution's first holder of its "Knowledge Against Poverty" chair. J-PAL as a whole claimed a major new international prize in January, the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in the category of Development Cooperation.

Three MIT alumni were also named as 2009 MacArthur Fellows. Peter Huybers PhD ’04, an assistant professor of earth and planetary sciences at Harvard, received the award for research that helps explain changes in the earth's climate over the past 1.8 million years.

John A. Rogers PhD ’95, a professor of engineering at the University of Illinois, was named a MacArthur Fellow for his work in materials science. Rogers is developing flexible semiconductors, based either on silicon or carbon nanotubes, which can give a signal-processing capability to a wide range of devices, in areas from medicine and clean energy to consumer goods.

Daniel Sigman PhD ’97, a biogeochemist at Princeton, was given the award for research illuminating the effects oceanic biomass has had on the earth's climate over the past two million years.

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