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Thursday , October 11 , 2012
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At lunch, the real Big Mac
- Picked for fellowship, Raj looks at kids’ mobility

New Delhi, Oct. 10: An Indian-origin economist at Harvard University, who has been selected for the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship for “asking penetrating questions” in applied economics, now plans to explore what helps some children do better in life than their parents.

The US-based MacArthur Foundation last week named Raj Chetty, one of Harvard's youngest tenured professor of economics, among 23 intellectuals from diverse fields picked, as the Foundation put it, for their “creativity, originality and potential to make important contributions in the future”.

Chetty, 33, was at lunch with his mother in a downtown Boston restaurant when he first learnt through a phone call from the Foundation that he would be among its Class of 2012 fellows and would receive $500,000 (Rs 2.65 crore) as no-strings-attached support over the next five years.

“It was a complete surprise because there’s no application, so you don’t even know you’re being considered for the award,” Chetty told The Telegraph in an interview today. The Foundation uses an anonymous nomination and selection process.

Chetty’s research spans a range of issues in applied economics — from personal savings to the impact of education in early life. In one research study, he has demonstrated, for instance, that the quality of kindergarten teachers that children get will determine their income when they become adults.

The kindergarten study results, educationists say, have sharp lessons for India.

“India has seriously neglected pre-primary education despite evidence that children need a strong foundation through kindergarten years,” said Krishna Kumar, a former director of the National Council of Education Research and Training, New Delhi.

Chetty was born in New Delhi, but was raised in the US where his parents moved when he was nine. His father is an economist at Boston University, and his mother a physician studying lung injuries, according to a faculty profile produced by Harvard University.

He recalls thinking about several possible research career options — biomedical sciences, mathematics, and “something to do with social problems” — while in school. But in his first year at Harvard College, Chetty said, he thought he’d “try out an economics class” — and has been glued to the subject ever since. “It’s a field where we can’t conduct experiments as easily as in science or medicine,” Chetty said.

But a nation is the laboratory for economists, and experimental readings may be extracted from databases of schools, test scores, jobs and earnings — as his kindergarten study has shown.

The study found that students assigned to talented teachers in elementary school are more likely to have higher incomes and better life outcomes in their adulthood. It also helped show that test scores of children in primary school may be used to assess the quality of teachers, Chetty said.

Chetty is now planning an even more ambitious study — he hopes to use data from different US zipcodes to determine what proportion of children have experienced upward mobility and then identify common factors, if any, across those areas that could have contributed to that rise.

“Our goal is to identify the factors that are the ultimate root causes of higher upward income mobility (of children),” said Chetty. These could be factors such as high quality schools or universities, job opportunities, or other social and economic factors.

When he’s not pursuing questions in applied economics or teaching students at Harvard, Chetty likes biking along the Charles river, playing tennis, or helping his wife, Sundari, in cooking “south Indian” dishes, okra curry or naan pizza.

Sundari is one reason he is back in Boston.

After completing a doctorate at Harvard University in 2003, Chetty spent some time as a faculty research fellow at the US National Bureau of Economic Research before moving to Stanford first and then the University of California, Berkeley.

He returned to Harvard in 2009, according to the Harvard University profile description, turning down professorship offers from Stanford, Chicago, and Yale. “What drew him back to Harvard, in part, was being able to solve what Chetty called the ‘co-location’ problem,” the profile said. Sundari is a post-doctoral research fellow at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.

The MacArthur Foundation said Chetty has asked “simple penetrating questions” and developed “rigorous theoretical and empirical tests” to come up with findings that are “illuminating key policy issues of our time”.

The Foundation said Chetty was using large administrative databases drawn from tax and social security records in the US and Europe to explore a range of questions, including the extent to which tax deductions stimulate individual savings.

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