Indian-born Economist Dazzles

Updated: Oct 20 2002, 05:30am hrs
Out of the blue, Sendhil Mullainathan just got half a million dollars (Rs 25 crore) and no one is going to ask him what he intends to do with the windfall.

Mullainathan, 29, an associate professor at the acclaimed Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is one of Americas most creative and youngest economic thinkers one of a select band trying to redefine conventional economics and hes one of the 24 winners of this years MacArthur award.

The prestigious awards nurture, those who challenge inherited orthodoxies and take intellectual, scientific and cultural risks, as Jonathan F Fanton, president of the MacArthur Foundation, puts it. Awardees cannot apply for the award or be nominated: that work is done by highly-qualified anonymous nominators. The half a million dollars is distributed over five years with no strings attached.

There is no interview before the award is granted, so the announcement came as a big surprise for the delighted but stunned Mullainathan, say his colleagues at MIT. He neednt have been stunned though.

Mullainathans empirical methodology and theoretical inquiries consistently reveal new perspectives from which to consider traditional questions in economics, says a MacArthur Foundation statement. Still at the outset of his career, he invigorates the discipline with fresh and unconventional inquiries into important issues.

The award is especially significant because it helps demolish the myth that people of Indian origin are largely weak at creative thinking outside the world of technology.

Mullainathan, whose Tamil parents migrated to the US when he was a child, is acclaimed at MIT for his seminal contributions to the evolving field of behavioural economics.

Mullainathan himself was unavailable for comment, but Prof Olivier Blanchard, a noted economist and chairman of MITs department of economics told FE that he considers Mullainathan one of the most creative researchers in economics. MIT has no claim on Mullainathans half a million, but the award will help him pay for the large empirical projects the young professor runs in India and the US, explains Blanchard.

Mullainathans approach to economics is to take theories and concepts and apply them in real-world situations. He uses a range of subjects from biology to psychology and communities of people to interpret his empirical research.

Behavioural economics pushes the standard assumptions of economics that firms maximise profit and people maximise utility. It is a field that attracts some of the worlds top young researchers. Indeed, one of the two Nobel prizes in economics this year was given to a behavioural economist.

Mullainathans recent studies reveal the road ahead for this branch of economics: the economic role of social networking, resource allocation within extended families in developing countries, racial discrimination in the American market place, and limited use of savings accounts by the poor.

Mullainathan earned a Ph.D from Harvard four years ago. Since then hes been on the faculty of the Department of Economics at MIT, his talent skyrocketing him to the post of associate professor before the age of 30. He is young, and this reflects how much we admire him, says Blanchard.

The MacArthur Awards have been given out for two decades now, and this years selection of fellows reveals the breath, depth and purity of the creativity they hope to promote. Other recipients include: a seismologist applying structural engineering principles to public buildings in some of the worlds poorest, most earthquake-proof regions; a trombonist expanding the possibilities of improvisation; a journalist chronicling tales of those left behind or left out of progress; a molecular eco-biologist studying bacterial communication; an artist working in three dimensions with glass beads; and a roboticist designing self-configurable robots.