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Mullainathan Wins $500K MacArthur Fellowship

By Nathan Collins

EXECUTIVE EDITOR

MIT Economics Professor Sendhil Mullainathan has been awarded a $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship for his “fresh and unconventional inquiries” in theoretical and empirical economics.

Mullainathan has written papers on subjects from behavioral economics to corporate finance and has drawn on research from biology and psychology in addition to economics. In awarding the fellowship, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation cited in particular his multidisciplinary approach to economics.

The unusual fellowships are awarded without any requirements on recipients, including progress reports or published papers. Fellows do not apply for the award, and generally do not even know they are being considered.

Mullainathan, 29, is this year’s youngest recipient of the fellowship.

Prof. researched corporate pay

One of Mullainathan’s interests, executive salaries, has recently become an important contemporary issue. Mullainathan’s research has shown how corporate pay to top executives can spiral out of the control of market forces, which would normally be expected to discourage excessive salaries.

“In the midst of the bubble two years ago, people were less willing to hear this,” Mullainathan told The New York Times. “Now people are quite willing to accept this because they think of recent scandals.”

Mullainathan has also worked in the intersection of economics and psychology, using both theoretical and empirical approaches to understand human economic behavior. The MacArthur Foundation cited his 1998 paper, “A Memory-Based Model of Bounded Rationality,” as indicative of his broad-based approach to economics.

As for the money, Mullainathan told Tech Talk he is considering using the money philanthropically through a non-profit organization in his home country, India.

Thirteen MacArthurs to MIT

Grants are given for a wide range of creative endeavors -- this year’s winners include George Lewis, “a trombonist expanding the possibilities of improvisation,” and Lee Ann Newsom, “a paleoethnobotonist analyzing fossilized plant remains to shed new light on prehistoric populations,” according to The MacArthur Foundation’s press release.

At MIT, Mullainathan joins Professor Michael J. Piore, also of economics, Institute Professor Noam Chomsky of linguistics, Professor Eric S. Lander of biology, Research Affiliate Richard M. Stallman of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and eight other professors and affiliates in having won the fellowship.

Mullainathan joined the MIT economics faculty in 1998 after earning his doctorate from Harvard University, where this semester he is a visiting professor. He has previously received the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation grant and the John M. Olin Foundation grant.