Clark Medal to Susan Athey

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In was in 1995 that Susan Athey made her debut as an economist, in The New York Times. She was 24.  “The Top Draft Pick in Economics; A Professor-to-Be Coveted by Two Dozen Universities” read the headline on Sylvia Nasar’s prescient story about the Stanford Graduate School of Business-educated whiz. “We fought really hard to get her,” explained Bengt Holmstrom of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, after Athey accepted MIT’s offer. “I’ve rarely seen somebody about whom there was as much unanimity.”

Friday the American Economic Association (AEA) emphatically ratified the judgment, naming Athey the first female winner of its John Bates Clark Medal, awarded every two years to the most promising US economist under 40.  Recent winners have included Daron Acemoglu of MIT, Steven D. Levitt of the University of Chicago, Matthew Rabin of the University of California at Berkeley and Andrei Shleifer of Harvard University.

Like Levitt, Athey was tipped early. Just 36, she would have remained eligible for the prize in 2009.

Why speed matters up?  Because in the key fields of industrial organization and the economics of organizations themselves, Athey stands out as a dominating figure on a swiftly advancing front. In its citation, the AEA Committee on Honors and Awards described her success in knitting together strong theory and careful measurement in a broad class of problems, especially those in which private information and knowledge of competitors’ situations is important. Mark Whitehouse gave a good account in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required).

The work is complicated in the extreme, all monotonicity assumptions and nonparametric structural analysis, but the models and techniques that Athey and others are developing promise to have practical consequences. They allow economists to make and test predictions about how firms can be expected to behave in uncertain circumstances — highly useful in a world that increasingly relies on carefully-designed auctions to allocate resources among competing firms.

Eventually, the new tools hold out the promise of allowing economists to talk with real conviction about structures whose doings are the stuff of everyday front-page news — strategic partnerships, legislative coalitions, special industrial interest groups, standard-setting bodies and the like — even though their existence is scarcely hinted at in introductory texts.

Athey’s award is emblematic of the considerable progress women have made in economics in, say, the last twenty years. The Clark was first given in 1947 to Paul Samuelson. (Kenneth Boulding won in 1949, Milton Friedman in 1951, the committee deadlocked in 1953 and no award was made, before James Tobin was recognized in 1955 and Kenneth Arrow in 1957. The full list can be found here. Meanwhile, the somewhat similar Bernácer Prize, awarded annually since 2001 to a European economist under the age of 40, has been split evenly between women and men: Philip Lane (Trinity College Dublin), José Manuel Campa (Graduate School of Business New York University and University of Navarra, Luigi Zingales (GSB Chicago), Stephanie Schmitt-Grohe (Duke), Monika Piazzesi (GSB Chicago) and Hélène Rey (Princeton) in that order.

In 1998, the AEA’s Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession began giving a similarly-structured award, named for the theorist Elaine Bennett, who died in 1995 at 44: first to Yale’s Judith Chevalier in 1998, then to Athey in 2000, to MIT’s Esther Duflo in 2002, and, in 2004, to Marianne Bertrand and to Piazzesi in 2006, both of the GSB Chicago.

Meanwhile, as Harvard’s Claudia Goldin notes, “Even though women are still a relatively small fraction of the total group of PhDs (one of the lowest among all disciplines), the fraction of women among new PhDs is about 7 times as large as when I was a graduate student [in the late 1960s].  That alone is important progress.”  And instead of dropping out or failing to use their degrees, she says, women have tended tend to work as hard in the discipline, or even harder, than men. “Women are taken seriously in just about all fields of economics.”

The award is fresh evidence, too, of the prominence in economics of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, where Athey went after graduating from Duke University, in 1991, with a joint degree in economics, computer science and math.  A small but stellar faculty, including Paul Milgrom, John Roberts, David Kreps and Edward Lazear, served her well, and when she went on the job market in 1995, she was courted aggressively by virtually all top economics departments.  She chose MIT, whose senior theorist, Holmstrom, was also a graduate of the Stanford program.

Athey was born in Boston, in 1970. Her father, Whit Athey, was a graduate student in physics at Tufts, her mother, Elizabeth Johansen, an English teacher and free-lance editor (including, for a time, the Ranger Rick magazine); both had grown up in small towns in northern Alabama. (They divorced after she finished high school.) Athey went on to a career at the Food and Drug Administration, from which he recently retired (he now edits a free online Journal of Genetic Geneology, which he co-founded); Johansen moved to California. Athey’s older sister, a psychiatrist, lives in California, too.

After six years at MIT, Athey returned to Stanford in 2001. Then last year, she and her husband, econometrician Guido Imbens, who had been on the faculty at Berkeley, accepted a joint offer from Harvard. They bought a house close to campus (from former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who was moving to teach at Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy), the better to juggle their work and children, age one and three. The idea, presumably, was that Cambridge was more central to economics than Palo Alto; closer, too, to Europe (Imbens is Dutch).

For purposes of understanding Athey’s place in present-day economics, then, never mind the rigorous theoretical/empirical orientation and econometrics, important though they may be. To glimpse her determination to influence the manner in which economics is done, by men and women alike, check out her advice to would-be graduate students and to faculty negotiating senior appointments. Contemplate her leaderly qualities:  to organize the winter Econometric Society meetings last year, she formulated a committee of sixteen female economists. Consider her habit of collaboration — more than a dozen co-authors on important papers over the years. Meanwhile, there are the children. Last fall she was known to go home after teaching to nurse her baby, before returning to the office for the afternoon seminar.