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Another economics Nobel

MIT labor economist Joshua Angrist was honored for his work on “natural experiments” that make the field more empirically rigorous.

December 17, 2021
Joshua Angrist
MIT economist Joshua Angrist’s work helps scholars answer causal questions.Lillie Paquette

On October 11, Joshua D. Angrist became the eighth person to win a Nobel prize in economics as an MIT faculty member, sharing the award with Guido Imbens of the Stanford Graduate School of Business and David Card of the University of California, Berkeley. All three have long collaborated to upgrade empirical research in the field.

Angrist was cited for establishing new ways to conduct “natural experiments”—studies in which otherwise similar groups of people are separated by variables such as a change in government policy regarding school districts, health care, or wage levels. This data helps researchers untangle cause and effect in complex social situations.

However, drawing robust conclusions from such studies is rarely simple, and Angrist has worked to develop tools that help. The Nobel citation emphasizes the influence of a 1994 paper by him and Imbens, formalizing the idea that the average effect of something—be it a new government policy, a wage increase, military service, or educational attainment—is best measured by its impact on people who would not normally have experienced it. He has also done deep empirical research on matters such as the effects of education and military service on lifetime earnings and the impact of class size on educational outcomes.

Angrist, who grew up in Pittsburgh, traveled a slightly winding road to academic success. He left high school after the 11th grade and worked in a state mental hospital before attending Oberlin College, graduating with a degree in economics in 1982. After leaving one graduate program, he earned his MA and PhD from Princeton University in 1987 and 1989, respectively. Before joining the MIT faculty in 1996, he taught at Harvard and Hebrew University. He has been the Ford International Professor of Economics at MIT since 2008.

The author or coauthor of over 50 peer-reviewed papers, dozens of review articles and book chapters, and two books, Angrist has advocated enthusiastically for rigorous empirical economics. But he has long emphasized that natural experiments and other empirical tools are not ends in themselves. All these methods, he believes, are best when attached to vital social issues, making economists’ work “better, more convincing, and more relevant, in policy discussions and to families making decisions.”

“Professor Angrist’s work examining the effects of real-world economic circumstances and social policies is a proud reminder of MIT’s commitment to bring knowledge to bear on the world’s most pressing issues,” Provost Martin A. Schmidt said in an online press conference after the award was announced.

For his part, Angrist seemed eager to get back to work. “I have the best colleagues any economist could hope to have, and wonderful students,” he said. “I look forward to teaching class again on Tuesday morning—I’m teaching labor economics at 10:30.” 

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