Two MIT professors, health care economist Amy Finkelstein and media studies scholar Lisa Parks, have each been awarded a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship.
The prominent award, colloquially known as the “genius grant,” comes in the form of a five-year $625,000 fellowship, which is unrestricted, meaning recipients can use the funding any way they wish. There are 25 such fellowships being awarded in 2018. Alumna Deborah Estrin SM ’83, PhD ’85, a computer scientist at Cornell Tech, is also a new MacArthur Fellow.
“I’m very honored,” says Finkelstein, the John and Jennie S. MacDonald Professor of Economics at MIT, adding that she was surprised when first notified by the MacArthur Foundation.
“I’m extremely grateful to MIT,” says Finkelstein, who has been both a doctoral student and faculty member at the Institute. “I’ve essentially spent my entire intellectual life here.”
Noting that the award is a sign of respect for her branch of economics generally, Finkelstein says she appreciates the “broader attention to the scientific work that health care economists are doing and recognition of the progress we have made as a science.”
Parks says her MacArthur award is “an incredible honor,” and that she is “thrilled to be receiving it as a humanities scholar.” She also notes that the grant will help support a new writing project as well as other research efforts.
“The fellowship will help me to write another book and will be a big boost for the Global Media Technologies and Cultures (GMTaC) Lab that I recently launched at MIT,” Parks says.
Parks, who joined the MIT faculty in 2016 after teaching at the University of California at Santa Barbara, credited the intellectual environment at both places, adding that she was “grateful to my colleagues and students at MIT and UC Santa Barbara, and share this honor with them. They supported me as I tried experimental approaches and ventured off the beaten path.”
Decoding medical costs
Finkelstein’s research has yielded major empirical findings about the cost, value, and use of health care in the U.S. Her studies are known for both their results and their rigorous methodological approach; Finkelstein often uses “natural experiments,” in which certain social policies create two otherwise similar groups of people who differ in, say, their access to medical care. This allows her to study the specific effects of policies and treatments of interest.
One of the best-known research projects of Finkelstein’s career focuses on Oregon’s use of a lottery to expand state access to Medicaid. In a series of papers, Finkelstein and her co-authors found that access to Medicaid helped the poor get more medical treatment and avoid some financial shocks, while actually increasing use of emergency rooms.
Earlier in her career, Finkelstein published an influential 2007 paper detailing the varied effects of the introduction of Medicare in the U.S. in the 1960s. The study showed that Medicare's launch was associated with increases in health care spending and the adoption of new medical technologies, while having positive financial effects on the program's recipients.
Finkelstein has trained her investigative lens on a wide variety of other issues, however. Earlier this year, she published multiple papers showing that serious medical problems subsequently reduce earnings and hurt employment, while increasing personal debt, but do not lead to outright bankruptcy as often as is sometimes claimed.
Finkelstein received her PhD from MIT in 2001 and joined the Institute faculty in 2005. In addition to her professorship in MIT’s Department of Economics, Finkelstein is co-scientific director of J-PAL North America, an MIT-based research center that encourages randomized evaluations of social science questions. In 2012, she received the John Bates Clark Medal, granted by the American Economic Association to the best economist under the age of 40.
Parks is an expert on the cultural effects of space-age technologies, especially satellites. She has written in close detail about the ways new technology has shaped our conception of things as diverse as war zones and the idea of a “global village.” As Parks has said, her work aims to get people “to think of the satellite not only as this technology that’s floating around out there in orbit, but as a machine that plays a structuring role in our everyday lives.”
Parks is the author of the influential 2005 book, “Cultures in Orbit,” and has co-edited five books of essays on technology and culture, including the 2017 volume “Life in the Age of Drone Warfare.”
Parks also has a keen interest in technology and economic inequality, and her research has also examined topics such as the video content accessible to Aboriginal Australians, who, starting in the 1980s, attempted to gain greater control of satellite television programming in rural Australia.
As the principal investigator for MIT’s Global Media Technologies and Cultures Lab, Parks and MIT graduate students in the lab conduct onsite research about media usage in a range of places, including rural Africa.
Parks received her PhD at the University of Wisconsin before joining the faculty at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and then moving to MIT.
Including Finkelstein and Parks, 23 MIT faculty members and three staff members have won the MacArthur fellowship.
MIT faculty who have won the award over the last decade include computer scientist Regina Barzilay (2017); economist Heidi Williams (2015); computer scientist Dina Kitabi and astrophysicist Sara Seager (2013); writer Junot Diaz (2012); physicist Nergis Mavalvala (2010); economist Esther Duflo (2009); and architectural engineer John Ochsendorf and physicist Marin Soljacic (2008).