Social Sciences, 2020

Raj Chetty

William A. Ackman Professor of Economics, Harvard University and Director of Opportunity Insights, USA

The Infosys Prize 2020 in Social Sciences is awarded to Prof. Raj Chetty for his pioneering research on identifying barriers to economic opportunity and for developing solutions to help people escape from poverty towards better life outcomes. His research and extraordinary ability to discern patterns in large data have the potential to induce major shifts in the discipline of Economics.

Interview

Infographic: Whither opportunity

Bio

Prof. Raj Chetty is one of the youngest tenured professors in Harvard University’s history. Born in India, he moved to the US as a young boy, still in elementary school, with his immigrant parents. He completed his Ph.D. at the age of 23 from Harvard, and joined the faculty of University of California, Berkeley before returning to his alma mater as professor.

Prof. Chetty, along with collaborators John Friedman and Nathaniel Hendren, set up Opportunity Insights (a not-for-profit organization at Harvard University) which has developed an “Opportunity Atlas”, based on anonymous data following 20 million Americans. The Atlas offers answers to questions such as “which neighbourhoods in America provide the best chance to climb out of poverty?”.

Chetty’s prodigal scholarship has been widely recognized through various awards, such as the MacArthur Genius Fellowship (2012) and the John Bates Clark Medal (2013).

Scope and impact of work

Prof. Raj Chetty has a magical ability to use large data in conjunction with theories–traditional and behavioral–to draw implications for vital issues and policies concerning poverty, inequality, education, intergenerational mobility, insurance, and tax policy. His research is extraordinary in scope, spanning fields that might prima facie appear unrelated. He examines these issues across the usual sub-disciplinary silos, which exemplifies the uniqueness of his work.

Prof. Chetty’s pioneering scholarly work and teaching methods have begun to reshape teaching and research in Economics. Using big data on micro-units to analyze macro questions about inequality, employment and education is critical. These issues are fundamental to human lives, and also this represents the potential that the discipline of Economics, when used in combination with big data, has to shape actual economies. Bridging theory and empirics, Chetty’s approach harnesses the largely untapped power of big data to allow scholars to join the dots between the various elements that constitute development.

This is particularly important at a time when big data has become contentious for sometimes being surreptitiously utilized for nefarious purposes. Raj Chetty’s work demonstrates how to use big data responsibly, showing its tremendous positive power as an instrument for increasing human welfare whilst simultaneously protecting individual privacy. His work is focused on the US, but has potential for developing countries, including India, where millions grapple with debilitating poverty and crippling effects of inequality.

The value of Chetty’s big data based analysis has become even more apparent in the COVID-19 pandemic. Opportunity Insights has set up an Economic Tracker, using millions of data points, which shows us how existing faultlines in the US are deepening due to the COVID crisis.

Citation by the Jury

Prof. Raj Chetty’s pioneering and imaginative research on identifying barriers to economic opportunity is unique, deep and brilliant. He is committed to finding solutions to help people rise out of poverty towards better life outcomes.

Prof. Chetty’s work demonstrates how to use big data responsibly in addition to showing the positive power of big data as an instrument for understanding economic development and increasing human welfare. His work is focused on the US, but has clear relevance for developing countries, including India, where millions grapple with debilitating poverty and the crippling effects of inequality.

Raj Chetty’s contributions both to knowledge and to methods of research and pedagogy have the potential to induce major shifts in the discipline of Economics.

Congratulatory message from the Jury Chair—Kaushik Basu

“Raj Chetty’s research has been widely hailed for the light it sheds on a range of important topics, from inter-generational mobility and education, to tax policy and social insurance. What makes his work outstanding is its methodological originality. Raj has a magical ability to discern patterns in large data. His work has the potential to induce methodological shifts in economics and expand the reach of the discipline. I congratulate Raj for his remarkable contributions.”