By Michael Hotchkiss
TRAINED AS A LABOR ECONOMIST, Janet Currie earned her doctorate at Princeton by studying strikes and arbitration. But as she began her academic career in the late 1980s, she shifted her focus to examining the building blocks of success for children, as well as the stumbling blocks that can get in their way.
While the topics are very different, Currie said both benefit from research by economists. “I realized that economics is really more of a method, or a way of thinking, than a set of topics, and I have implemented that by working on issues that can benefit from the tools of economics research,” she said.
Over the nearly three decades since, Currie has used the methods of an economist, her analytical skills and an openness to new ideas to offer important insights into the health and well-being of children. In the terms of economics, she studies the factors that affect children’s human capital — the intangible assets such as health, skills and knowledge that play a role in life outcomes.
Today the Henry Putnam Professor of Economics and Public Affairs at Princeton and chair of the Department of Economics, Currie has tackled research on a wide range of topics, including socioeconomic differences in child health, environmental threats to children’s health and the long-term effects of poor health in early childhood.
Beyond the individual findings, Currie said, are broader lessons.
“One would be that very early life is important,” she said. “That is now pretty well accepted and has had an impact on policy, but at the time I was starting to do this research that wasn’t so widely appreciated. Another kind of general conclusion is that pollution at lower levels than Environmental Protection Agency thresholds for concern has measureable and detectable health effects.”
Currie joined the Princeton faculty in 2011 from Columbia University. Previously, she was on the faculty at the University of California-Los Angeles and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
At Princeton, Currie is director of the Center for Health and Wellbeing, which fosters research and teaching on aspects of health and well-being in developed and developing countries. She is also a senior editor of the Future of Children, a publica- tion that translates social science research about children and youth into information that is useful to policymakers, practitioners and other nonacademic audiences.
Sara McLanahan, a Princeton sociologist who works with Currie on projects including the Future of Children and shares many of her research interests, said Currie is “one of the most outstanding economists in the country who is doing work on child health.” And, McLanahan added, Currie’s impact goes beyond her research.
“She’s just very willing to give her time and be generous,” said McLanahan, the William S. Tod Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs. “She’s a straight shooter. She tells you what she thinks. She does more than her share, and she wants it to be done right. She’s just a great positive force.”
Currie, who earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economics from the University of Toronto before coming to Princeton for her doctoral studies, said several aspects of economics make it useful in studying children and their outcomes.
Among them: a tradition of using models to frame issues, an emphasis on measurement and a focus on establishing causal relationships.
Often, she has applied these principles in natural experiments, which are observational studies where conditions outside a researcher’s control randomly assign some people to an experimental condition and others to a control condition.
For example, interest in the impact of pollution on infant health led Currie and Reed Walker, then a graduate student at Columbia and now an assistant professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California-Berkeley, to examine the effect of introducing electronic toll collection on the health of children born to mothers who lived near toll plazas. They found that the switch to electronic toll collection, which greatly reduced traffic congestion and vehicle emissions near toll plazas, was associated with a decline in premature and low-birth-weight babies born to those mothers.
That research depended on identifying the roll-out of electronic toll collection as a potential natural experiment, gathering pollution data for the area of toll plazas, and mining birth records for the necessary information about the residences of mothers and birth outcomes.
In another natural experiment, Currie and Maya Rossin-Slater of Columbia used birth records from Texas and meteorological information to identify children born in the state between 1996 and 2008 whose mothers were in the path of a major tropical storm or hurricane during pregnancy. They found that expectant mothers who dealt with the strain of a hurricane or major tropical storm passing nearby during their pregnancy had children who were at elevated risk for abnormal health conditions at birth.
Hannes Schwandt, who has worked closely with Currie during three years as a postdoctoral research associate at the Center for Health and Wellbeing, said another important aspect of Currie and her work is her openness to new ideas.
“On the one hand, she has this great detailed expertise, given all the work she has done,” Schwandt said. “At the same time, she’s always open to new questions. I think combining her expertise with this view for broad, new directions is what makes her so special.”
Take a paper he and Currie published in 2014 on the effect of recessions on fertility. The idea began, Schwandt said, with a discussion they had about evidence that babies born during recessions are generally healthier than those born in better times.
“Janet said we need to step back and look at fertility — who is giving birth — instead of focusing on the health of babies,” Schwandt said. “She immediately made the connection that in the news there is always a discussion that there is decline in fertility during recessions. But no one really knew the long-term effect.”
After examining 140 million births over 40 years, Currie and Schwandt found that recessions are linked to an increase in the number of women who remain childless at age 40.
Currie is continuing to pursue ways to address issues relating to children and their development.
One project is looking for new evidence of the impact of lead exposure on children and their educational outcomes in Rhode Island. By matching birth records, lead-test results and school records, Currie is examining the impact of a program to reduce children’s exposure to lead.
“One of the really interesting things about this research, I think, is that the program to reduce lead exposure seems to have been pretty effective,” Currie said.
Because African American children were more likely to live in areas with high lead levels, the program brought their lead levels down more quickly than those of white children. At the same time, Currie said, the gap in standardized test scores between the groups narrowed.
The research could offer new clues about the role lead exposure plays in the lower test scores typically recorded by students who live in inner-city areas where lead exposure is more common, Currie said.
Another work in progress takes advantage of the implementation of congestion pricing in Stockholm, which levies a tax on most vehicles entering and exiting the city’s center, to measure the impact of traffic — and the resulting pollution — on child health. A third is examining state-by-state differences in smoking patterns among pregnant women and the relationship between smoking among pregnant women and low-birth-weight births.
A topic she would like to address in future work: mental health.
“I’m interested in that for a lot of different reasons,” she said. “If you look at the U.S. economy, mental health is the leading cause of lost work. That’s because it tends to strike people who are of working age, whereas a lot of other health conditions are more for older people. It’s important from an economic point of view. It also seems to be very related to a lot of learning issues.”
Over the past 20 years, Currie said, a raft of new psychiatric medications has come on the market, many of which are not well understood, and prices are rising.
“It seems like there’s this huge black box of things that are happening and no one is really studying, and there’s not very good data on it,” she said. “That’s something I’ve been struggling with for a while, how to get some purchase on that problem.”
Currie is also widely recognized for her work with young researchers and her advocacy for them.
“In addition to all the work she does as a top economist, being willing to work with students is a great benefit,” McLanahan said. “Having someone do so well and be so generous is important, especially for the next generation of female economists.”
In spring 2015, Currie received a Graduate Mentoring Award from the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning. Graduate students described Currie as insightful and readily available to help aspiring researchers develop their ideas and present them publicly.
Molly Schnell, a Ph.D. candidate in economics, said Currie is so generous with her time “that she seems to defy the principle of scarcity.”
In particular, she pointed to Currie’s willingness to co-author papers with graduate students.
“Learning to develop a paper by working through the process with an established researcher is a formative experience, and Janet makes sure that her students have this opportunity,” Schnell said.
Schwandt said Currie has helped him grow more confident in tackling new topics.
“One thing I’ve learned from her is not to worry too much whether other people think something is economics or not,” he said. “She always says: ‘First, who defines what economics is? And second, why do we really care so long as it is a really important question and we can help answer it?’”
Daniel Kahneman, the Eugene Higgins Professor of psychology, emeritus, and a Nobel laureate in economics, is one of 16 people who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the highest civilian honor in the United States — in 2013 from President Barack Obama.
The citation for Kahneman issued by the White House reads: “Daniel Kahneman is a pioneering scholar of psychology. After escaping Nazi occupation in World War II, Dr. Kahneman immigrated to Israel, where he served in the Israel Defense Forces and trained as a psychologist. Alongside Amos Tversky, he applied cognitive psychology to economic analysis, laying the foundation for a new field of research and earning the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002.”
Deborah Prentice, dean of the faculty and former chair of the psychology department, said she was delighted that Kahneman received this honor. “Danny was also one of the first to see the enormous potential for behavioral-science research to improve public policy,” Prentice said. “Here at Princeton, he created and co-taught the first course on behavioral policy and championed the appointment of many talented behavioral scientists to faculty positions in the Woodrow Wilson School. Behavioral approaches are now gaining in prominence in policy schools, think-tanks and government agencies, thanks in large part to Danny.”
–By the Office of Communications
Authors: Atif Mian and Amir Sufi
Publisher: University of Chicago Press, 2014
The Great American Recession resulted in the loss of 8 million jobs between 2007 and 2009. More than 4 million homes were lost to foreclosures. Is it a coincidence that the United States witnessed a dramatic rise in household debt in the years before the recession — that the total amount of debt for American households doubled between 2000 and 2007 to $14 trillion? Definitely not.
Armed with clear and powerful evidence, Atif Mian, the Theodore A. Wells ’29 Professor of Economics and Public Affairs, and Amir Sufi, the Chicago Board of Trade Professor of Finance at the University of Chicago, reveal how the Great Recession and Great Depression, as well as the current economic malaise in Europe, were caused by a large run-up in household debt followed by a significantly large drop in household spending. Mian and Sufi argue strongly with data that current policy is biased toward protecting banks and creditors.
AFFLUENT INDIVIDUALS AND BUSINESS CORPORATIONS have vastly more influence on federal government policy than average citizens, according to research by Princeton University and Northwestern University.
The researchers used a data set comprised of 1,779 policy issues over a 30-year period to estimate how much influence affluent citizens, organized interest groups and ordinary citizens each have on policy outcomes. They found that affluent citizens, those at the 90th-income percentile, have the most influence, followed by organized interest groups. However, the preferences of average citizens have no discernable, independent effect on policymaking at all, the researchers found.
“If democracy means that all citizens should have a say in shaping government policy, our findings cast doubt upon just how democratic U.S. policymaking actually is,” said Martin Gilens, a professor of politics at Princeton and a member of the executive committee of the Center for the Study of Democratic Politics at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He conducted the study, for the fall 2014 issue of the academic journal Perspectives on Politics, with co-author Benjamin Page, the Gordon Scott Fulcher Professor of Decision Making at Northwestern University.
Gilens is the author of the 2013 prize-winning book Affluence and Influence (Princeton University Press).
–By B. Rose Huber
The college experience often involves at least one road trip, but most students do not bring along their faculty adviser. But last spring, two graduate students crammed into a rented Chevy Impala with Professor Mark Zondlo and a postdoctoral researcher to drive eight hours a day across California’s Central Valley, testing their new air-quality sensors, which were strapped to a rooftop ski rack.
The sensors are an example of technologies being developed at Princeton that have the potential to improve quality of life as commercial products or services. Although teaching and research are Princeton’s core missions, the campus is home to a vibrant entrepreneurial spirit, one that can be found among faculty members who are making discoveries that could lead to better medicines as well as students working to turn a dorm-room dream into the next big startup.
“Princeton has a number of initiatives aimed at supporting innovation and technology transfer,” said John Ritter, director of Princeton’s Office of Technology Licensing, which works with University researchers to file invention disclosures and patent applications, and with businesses and investment capitalists to find partners for commercialization. “Our goal is to accelerate the transfer and development of Princeton’s basic research so that society can benefit from these innovations,” he said.
Crossing the valley
One of the ways that Princeton supports this transfer is with programs that help bridge the gap between research and commercialization, a gap that some call the Valley of Death because many promising technologies never make it to the product stage. One such program is the Intellectual Property Accelerator Fund, which provides financial resources for building a prototype or conducting additional testing with the goal of attracting corporate interest or investor financing.
Zondlo, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, is one of the researchers using the fund to cross the valley — in this case literally as well as figuratively. Earlier this year, Zondlo and his research team, which consisted of graduate students Kang Sun and David Miller and postdoctoral researcher Lei Tao, tested their air-quality sensor in California’s Central Valley, a major agricultural center that is home to some of the worst air pollution in the nation.
Their goal was to compare the new portable sensors to existing stationary sensors as well as to measurements taken by plane and satellite as part of a larger NASA-funded air-quality monitoring project, DISCOVER-AQ.
One of the new sensors measures nitrous oxide, the worst greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide and methane. Nitrous oxide escapes into the air when fertilizers are spread on farm fields. Currently, to measure this gas, workers must collect samples of air in bottles and then take them to a lab for analysis using equipment the size of refrigerators.
Zondlo’s sensor, which is bundled with two others that measure ammonia and carbon monoxide, is portable and can be held in one hand, or strapped to a car roof. “The portability allows measurements to be taken quickly and frequently, which could greatly expand the understanding of how nitrous oxide and other gases are released and how their release can be controlled,” Zondlo said.
The sensors involve firing a type of battery-powered laser, called a quantum cascade laser, through a sample of air, while a detector measures the light absorption to deduce the amount of gas in the air. The researchers replaced bulky calibration equipment, necessary to ensure accurate measurements in the field, with a finger-sized chamber of reference gas against which the sensor’s accuracy can be routinely tested.
The decision to commercialize the sensor arose from the desire to make the device available to air-quality regulators and researchers, Zondlo said. “Our sensor has precision and stability similar to the best sensors on the market today, but at a fraction of the size and power requirements,” said Zondlo, a member of the Mid-Infrared Technologies for Health and the Environment (MIRTHE) center, a multi-institution center funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and headquartered at Princeton. “We are already getting phone calls from people who want to buy it.”
Lighting up the brain — with help from a synthetic liver
Far from the dusty farm roads of California, Princeton faculty member John (Jay) Groves sits in his office in the glass-enclosed Frick Chemistry Laboratory, thinking about the potential uses for a new synthetic enzyme. Modeled on an enzyme isolated from the liver, the synthetic version can carry out reactions that human chemists find difficult to pull off.
One of these reactions involves attaching radioactive fluorine tags to drugs to make them visible using a brain-imaging method known as positron emission tomography (PET) scanning.
PET scans of the radiolabeled drugs could help investigators track experimental medicines in the brain, to see if they are reaching their targets, and could aid in the development of drugs to treat disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and stroke, according to Groves, Princeton’s Hugh Stott Taylor Chair of Chemistry. The synthetic enzyme adds fluorine tags without the toxic and corrosive agents used with radioactive fluorine today.
Groves’ initial work was supported by the NSF, but to develop the technology for use in pharmaceutical research, the Groves team, which includes graduate students Wei Liu and Xiongyi Huang, is receiving funding from a Princeton program aimed at supporting concepts that are risky but have potential for broad impact. The Eric and Wendy Schmidt Transformative Technology Fund was created with a $25 million endowment from Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt, a 1976 alumnus and former trustee, and his wife, Wendy.
“The Schmidt funding is enabling us to explore ways to optimize the chemical reaction and create a prototype of an automated system,” Groves said. “This will allow us to create a rapid and noninvasive way to evaluate drug candidates and observe important metabolites within the human brain.”
Aiding the search for planets
Inspired by the search for planets outside our solar system, Princeton postdoctoral researcher Tyler Groff conceived of a technology that could enhance the quality of images from telescopes. Groff received Schmidt funding to develop a device for controlling the mirrors that telescopes use to correct blurring and distortion caused by atmospheric turbulence, heat and vibrations.
This technology, known as adaptive optics, involves measuring disturbances in the light coming into the telescope and making small deformations to the surface of a mirror in precise ways to correct the image. These deformations are made using an array of mechanical devices, known as actuators, each capable of moving a small area of the flexible reflective surface up or down. But existing actuators are limited in the amount of correction they can provide, and the spaces between the actuators create dimples in the mirror, producing a visible pattern in the resulting images that astronomers call “quilting.”
Groff envisioned replacing the array of rigidly attached actuators with flexible ones made from packets containing iron particles suspended in a liquid, or ferrofluid. Just as iron filings can be moved by waving a magnet over them, applying varying magnetic fields to the ferrofluid changes the shape of the fluid in ways that deform the mirror.
The ferrofluid mirror enables highquality images while being more resistant to vibrations and potentially more power efficient, which will be important for future satellite-based telescopes, said Groff, who works in the laboratory of Jeremy Kasdin, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering. A ferrofluid mirror can also achieve something that a rigid actuator mirror cannot: it can assume a concave or bowl-like shape that aids the focusing of the telescope on objects in space. “A telescope that uses ferrofluid mirrors would be able to see dim objects better,” Groff said, “which would greatly enhance our ability to probe other solar systems.”
From drug discovery to space exploration, Princeton’s dedication to supporting technology transfer and potentially disruptive but high-risk research ideas is yielding tremendous benefits for the advancement of science and the improvement of people’s lives.
Box: From student project to startup
In 2009 when Princeton undergraduate Carlee Joe-Wong started working on the technology that would become the DataMi company, she didn’t even own a smartphone. Today, the startup company co-founded by Joe-Wong provides mobile traffic management solutions to wireless Internet providers, and also helps consumers manage their data usage through an app, DataWiz, that has been downloaded by more than 200,000 Apple and Android users.
Joe-Wong became involved in the study of mobile data usage in the spring of her junior year when Professor Mung Chiang challenged her to explore ways that wireless providers could reduce congestion by adjusting their prices based on the variations in network supply and demand. “I mostly just worked on the project in my dorm room,” Joe-Wong said. “I thought it would be cool if it was adopted but I didn’t think that I would be the one helping to make that happen.” After graduation, Joe-Wong became a graduate student working with Chiang on mathematical algorithms that predict the most effective methods for balancing network use across “peak” minutes and “valley” minutes.
“With companies charging $10 per gigabyte, mobile consumers today need to intelligently manage their data,” said Chiang, the Arthur LeGrand Doty Professor of Electrical Engineering. “What the DataWiz app does is tell you when, where and what app used how much of your quota.”
In May 2013 the team, under the engineering leadership of associate research scholar Sangtae Ha, opened an office for DataMi one block off campus. Needless to say, Joe-Wong now has a smartphone.
Taking it to the streets with help from Princeton’s eLab
A love of motorcycles brought them together: three Princeton undergraduates decided to explore building and marketing an electric motorcycle to provide a superior riding experience at significantly lower emissions than gasoline powered models.
The team was one of nine groups selected to participate in the 10-week eLab Summer Accelerator Program, an initiative of the Keller Center in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, which teaches entrepreneurship by offering resources, mentoring and working space.
Throughout the summer, the team members worked on ways to market the bike while simultaneously building a prototype. “We geared the product toward people who enjoy taking weekend trips,” said Nathan Haley, Class of 2014, an economics major.
Haley was joined by Luke Amber, Class of 2015, and Christine Odabashian, Class of 2014, both majors in mechanical and aerospace engineering. The team also included Luke’s older brother, Leif Amber, a graduate student in electrical engineering at Clarkson University.
-By Catherine Zandonella
With health care costs soaring, opinions abound on the best way to control costs without sacrificing patient outcomes. This past academic year, as part of their senior thesis research, several top students from the Department of Economics took a closer look at the link between health care costs and quality of life.
Jio Park examined the impact of hospital mergers on the quality of medical care. “Much of the existing literature focuses on the effects of mergers on costs and prices,” Park said. “I wanted to explore whether or not they affect patient outcomes.”
Park examined mergers that took place in California between 1996 and 2010. She found that mergers are associated with higher mortality rates, reflecting a reduction in quality. She concluded that the adverse effects of mergers are especially strong for patients with high-risk medical conditions such as congestive heart failure and pneumonia.
Park’s adviser, Nancy Reichman, a visiting professor in the economics department and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, and a professor of pediatrics at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, praised the research, which earned the Department of Economics’ highest honor for a senior thesis, the Wolf Balleisen Memorial Prize. “Jio used many types of statistical techniques to look from all angles at hospital mergers and their effect on mortality,” Reichman said. “This is an exceptional piece of work.”
Hospice versus hospitals
Ameer Elbuluk examined how patients decide between aggressive hospital-based treatments versus palliative hospice care.According to Elbuluk’s research, most patients with serious illness would prefer to die in the company of family and loved ones. He also found that even with aggressive treatment, people were not living longer. Yet the cost of aggressive treatment was significant, according to the studies that Elbuluk found. For example, a 2011 study found that Medicare, the government program that serves the elderly, spends about one-third of its total budget on patients with chronic illness in their last two years of life.
To study the factors associated with increased hospice use, Elbuluk used data from the National Home and Hospice Care Survey (NHHCS). Elbuluk found that hospice use was more likely among patients who had a living will or advance care directive. Patients were more likely to choose hospice if regular doctor visits were provided.
The largest barrier to hospice use, Elbuluk found, stemmed from Medicare policies. Elbuluk noted that before approving hospice care, Medicare requires a physician’s diagnosis that the patient has less than six months to live if the illness were to run its natural course. In his research, however, Elbuluk found that physicians are reluctant to make such a diagnosis.
Elbuluk’s thesis yields policy suggestions that could help increase the use of hospice care and reduce unnecessary expenditures, according to his adviser, Elizabeth Bogan, a senior lecturer in economics. “It is wonderful that we have students who are excellent scholars,” she said.
Park and Elbuluk presented their findings with three other seniors, Maeve Drablos, Samuel Dresner and Shirley Lee, at the annual undergraduate student research forum hosted by the Benjamin H. Griswold III, Class of 1933, Center for Economic Policy Studies.
“Each of these students has conducted a sophisticated work of analysis,” said Uwe Reinhardt, a leading authority on health care economics and the James Madison Professor of Political Economy, and professor of economics and public affairs at the Wilson School. Reinhardt is a co-director of the Griswold Center with Hyun Song Shin, the Hughes-Rogers Professor of Economics.
–By Catherine Zandonella
At a White House ceremony, William G. Bowen, Princeton’s 17th president, and Natalie Zemon Davis, the Henry Charles Lea Professor of History, Emerita, were awarded the National Humanities Medal for 2012. The medal recognizes 12 individuals for their commitment to deepening the nation’s appreciation of, as well as access to, resources in the humanities.
The National Endowment for the Humanities nominated Bowen, a professor of economics and public affairs, emeritus, for the award in recognition of his contributions to higher education and economics research in America. According to the official citation for the medal, Bowen has “used his leadership to put theories into practice and strive for new heights of academic excellence.” Bowen served as Princeton University president from 1972 to 1988.
Davis was honored for insights into historical research, which has allowed the public to engage with history and better understand what life might have looked like for previous generations. Davis, who focuses on the social and cultural history of early modern Europe, has worked as a consultant and scriptwriter for the 1982 film Le retour de Martin Guerre, which led to the publication of her book on historical events in France in the 16th century, The Return of Martin Guerre.
Many fine books on the financial crisis were first drafts of history — books written to fill the need for immediate understanding. Alan Blinder, the Gordon S. Rentschler Memorial Professor of Economics and Public Affairs and a Wall Street Journal columnist, and former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, took the time to understand the crisis and produce a truly comprehensive and coherent narrative of how the worst economic crisis in postwar American history happened, what the government did to fight it, and what can be done from here.
With bracing clarity, Blinder shows how the U.S. financial system, which had grown far too complex for its own good — and too unregulated for the public good — experienced a perfect storm beginning in 2007. Some observers argue that large global forces were the major culprits of the crisis. Blinder disagrees, arguing that the problem started in the U.S. and was pushed abroad, as complex, opaque and overrated investment products were exported to a hungry world.
The second part of the story explains how American and international government intervention prevented a total meltdown. Blinder offers clear eyed answers to the questions still before us, even if some of the choices ahead are as divisive as they are unavoidable.
Publisher: The Penguin Press HC, 2013 (Cover image and text courtesy of the publisher)
Leonard Wantchekon’s education began as a young child in his home village of Zagnanado, in the West African nation of Benin, where elementary school classes gave way to long soccer games and evenings of storytelling by aunts and uncles whose tales became informal history courses.
He left village life behind in a search for academic success that took him to the nation’s most populous city, Cotonou, to the National University of Benin to study mathematics, and eventually to North America and Princeton.
During his student years in Benin, Wantchekon became a pro-democracy activist. Planning meetings became his classes, fellow activists his classmates and acts of protest his final exams. Through the 1970s and ’80s he rose to a prominent place in the opposition that helped hasten the end of the oppressive regime of Mathieu Kérékou.
“All the time I tried to be two different persons in one,” Wantchekon said. “On the one hand I wanted to be the next big thing in academics in Africa. I wanted to be a top mathematician and was very ambitious, driven and enthusiastic. … At the same time, I was an equally ambitious pro-democracy activist. I was at the center of a social movement that was pushing for major political reforms in Benin.”
His twin paths of academic study and political activism frequently diverged and intersected until a morning in December 1986, when he escaped across the border into Nigeria following 18 months of incarceration as a political prisoner and three months on the run from authorities.
“It was — or rather, I was determined to make this — the dividing line between my past and my future,” Wantchekon wrote about that moment in his autobiography Rêver à contre-courant (Dreaming Against the Grain), published in French by L’Harmattan in 2012.
A quarter-century after leaving his home country, Wantchekon has built upon his remarkable past to forge an academic career focused on studying — and working to shape — governance and institutions in Africa.
He has emerged as one of the rare political scientists who works directly with politicians, using their campaigns as laboratories to study how best to engage voters on policies. He also studies how the benefits of education spread through a society, using his home village as one of the study sites. And he’s hard at work on his most ambitious project, establishing a graduate school and center for social science research in Benin.
“We shouldn’t underestimate how crucial it is that ideas that will help Africa develop have to come mostly from Africa and have to involve more Africans,” said Wantchekon, who joined the Princeton faculty in 2011 as a professor of politics and associate faculty member in the economics department. “This, of course, cannot happen overnight. So we need to set up great institutions of higher education with the hope that, over time, we develop enough talent to make a difference.”
Political campaign as laboratory
In Benin, Wantchekon is experimenting with ways to engage voters using the nation itself as a laboratory. “As a researcher and someone who has political experience, I’m interested in the following question: How can a candidate best communicate a policy platform to the electorate that is both good for the country and can help the candidate win?” Wantchekon said.
With the cooperation of the candidates and funding from the International Development Research Council of Canada (IDRC), he is evaluating the effectiveness of two campaign techniques: town-hall meetings focused on issues versus the usual large and costly rallies that emphasize financial incentives for voters.
Wantchekon found that town-hall meetings are more effective than rallies both in terms of getting people to turn out to vote and getting them to vote for the candidate. “Not only are the people more informed,” he said, “but those who attend share what they have learned with others.” Some of the project results were published in the October 2013 issue of the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics. He completed a similar experiment in the Philippines earlier this year with support from Princeton’s Mamdouha S. Bobst Center for Peace and Justice, and is awaiting the results.
His next project is to explore the conditions under which holding primary elections within political parties, as is done in the United States, could encourage candidates to develop more thorough expertise on policy areas. “Competition between two candidates from the same party, running on the same platform, I think will encourage candidates to go deeper into the issues with the voters,” Wantchekon said.
Peter Buisseret, a Ph.D. student studying comparative politics, is collaborating with Wantchekon on this work. “Leonard is enormously enthusiastic about the projects we work on together, and also my own work,” Buisseret said. “As a co-author, he is truly collaborative: I feel very much an equal in the projects we work on, but at the same time I recognize how much intellectual and professional benefit I get from working with someone with his experience and knowledge.”
Wantchekon said his experience in graduate school shapes the way he relates to students. After fleeing Benin, he found his way to Canada, where he earned master’s degrees in economics from Laval University and the University of British Columbia.
In 1992, he went to Northwestern University, where he earned his doctorate in economics. But the transition to the American academic system — and an environment where only English was spoken — was difficult. He overcame the challenges, though, and secured a position as an assistant professor of political science at Yale University and later on the faculty of New York University.
Far-reaching benefits of education
Wantchekon’s experiences spurred him to explore how education has benefited people within villages and across generations in Benin, a country that experienced Western colonization. When Benin, then known as Dahomey, was colonized in 1895 by France, Catholic missionaries began setting up schools throughout the region. The missionaries’ goal was religious conversion, Wantchekon said, while the colonial government aimed to train local people to work as translators, nurses, accountants and security guards.
Using colonial archives, school rosters and oral histories, and with financial support from IDRC, Wantchekon identified 240 of the first students to attend school in the early 1900s at four sites in Benin. He noted that these students were not smarter or wealthier than the average Benin child but merely were fortunate to live near a school, so they can be thought of as randomly selected and representative of the population. He compared each group of 60 students to a representative sample of children from a village that lacked a school.
He found that the educated individuals experienced better incomes and living conditions. For example, only 14 percent of the educated students become farmers, whereas farming was the primary occupation among the uneducated (about 80 percent). He also found that the educated were more likely to have electricity and running water in their homes and to own a bicycle, motorcycle or car.
Wantchekon also found lasting effects that went beyond the individuals who received education. The children of the first students exhibited better outcomes, as might be expected, but what is particularly striking, Wantchekon said, is that the children of uneducated parents living in villages with schools did markedly better than descendants of uneducated parents in villages without schools.
“What I draw from this is the importance of aspiration,” he said. “When you see someone who makes it, he or she is your reference point, and you want to make it too. This is a very important finding for education policy. It is how you use the success of a few to encourage the success of many.”
Wantchekon said his findings resonate with his own experience. His mother, who was mostly uneducated, would show him pictures of his successful and educated uncle and urge her children to be like him. Of the children he went to school with in the village of Zagnanado, 10 others have earned Ph.D.s. “Entire villages in Benin have been completely transformed by education,” he said.
With a small team of students sponsored by Princeton’s Health Grand Challenge program, Wantchekon is now exploring whether the beneficial effects of education have continued to spread to the grandchildren of Benin’s first students in an era of increased competition for jobs.
Returning to Benin
Wantchekon isn’t just studying Africa’s past and present. He’s working to shape its future as founder of the African School of Economics (ASE), which is set to open in Benin in fall 2014. The goal of the ASE, Wantchekon said, is to create a center of excellence for social science research in Africa.
The school, which has its roots in a research institute Wantchekon established in Benin in 2004, has received funding from the Women for Africa Foundation and SES, a satellite company based in Luxembourg, and is scheduled to open with about 300 master’s degree students.
“I’ve always thought that the way to promote social science research in Africa is to have a better African representation in social science research
in Africa,” Wantchekon said. “We need to solve development problems on the continent through original thinking and indigenous generation of knowledge.”
The ASE will bring together students and faculty from Africa and beyond with an academic focus on informing social science within the context and history of Africa. Classes will be taught in English. The school’s structure and curriculum have been established. The design of the school, to be based near the city of Cotonou, is nearing completion.
The ASE is also pursuing academic partnerships with universities around the world that he hopes will lead to a free flow of students, faculty and ideas. Earlier this year, Princeton announced a partnership involving Wantchekon and the University of São Paulo, the Center for Teaching and Research in Economics in Mexico, and the Institute for Empirical Research in Political Economy in Benin. As part of this program, ASE hosted a summer school and conference involving 12 graduate students from Princeton and 10 from African universities.
“One of the things the University is very excited about in terms of this initiative is the opportunity our faculty will have to collaborate with scholars in Western Africa and possibly in other countries in sub-Saharan Africa later,” said Diana Davies, vice provost for international initiatives. “Also, this allows us to engage in the activity of capacity building and helping to build up the next generation of scholars in Africa, which is something that’s very important to us.”
“Africa is part of the University’s larger internationalization effort,” said Jeremy Adelman, Princeton’s Walter Samuel Carpenter III Professor in Spanish Civilization and Culture, professor of history and director of the University’s Council for International Teaching and Research. “But the strategy has to be adapted to Africa. Figuring out how it’s going to work in Africa requires working with Africans.”
Wantchekon knows that much work remains to reach his goals for the ASE. “I am really determined to get there,” he said. “ASE enables me to nourish big ambitions and dreams for Africa while being among the best academics in America.”
By Michael Hotchkiss