Two Social Scientists Awarded ‘Genius Grants’

Heidi Williams
Heidi Williams of the MIT Department of Economics (Photo: John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)
Two social scientists, an economist who focuses on “the causes and consequences of technological change in health care markets,” and a sociologist known for his pioneering research on the impacts of eviction on poor city-dwellers, are among the 24 John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation fellows for 2015 named today.

The two social scientists both work at Boston-area institutions, economist Heidi Williams, 34, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and urban sociologist Matthew Desmond, 35, at Harvard University.

Williams, according to the MacArthur citation, “combines finely grained empirical observations and custom-designed data collection methods to build entirely new datasets about technological changes in health care. In addition, her creative methods for determining causal inference, and keen understanding of regulatory law, biological science, and medical research, have allowed her to trace the interplay among institutions, market behavior, and public policy-relevant outcomes.”

Examples of her work include examinations of how property law affects innovation developed out of decoding the human genome; Williams found that one type of intellectual property protection may have hindered the full exploitation of benefits from human genetic research, even as another of her projects showed that patent protection itself did not hinder product development in genetics. She has also studied the development of cancer drugs and showed how patent protection creates a bias for certain treatments, which in turn affects patient options and needs.

As MacArthur noted, “Williams’s insights about market inducements for innovation and the implications of technological change in health care markets are informing institutional practice and public policy and sparking new lines of inquiry about innovation more broadly.”

Williams has been at MIT since 2011 and is currently the Class of 1957 Career Development Assistant Professor in the Department of Economics. She is a fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Matthew Desmond
Matthew Desmond looks past his camera while walking around Cambridge, Mass.
“In his investigations of the low-income rental market and eviction in privately owned housing in Milwaukee,” MacArthur noted of the second social scientist awarded, “Desmond argues persuasively that eviction is a cause, rather than merely a symptom, of poverty.” In his Milwaukee Area Renters Study of tenants in Milwaukee’s low-income private housing sector, Desmond showed both the causes and the dire consequences of eviction, especially among African American and female-headed households. He found, for example, that when women reported domestic violence those calls were logged as “nuisance calls” and could result in the caller being evicted.

Elizabeth Gudrais for Harvard Magazine profiled Desmond last year, calling him a “versatile sociologist, skilled at quantitative analysis, social theory, and the practice of ethnography”:

Through his books, articles, and newspaper op-ed essays, he tries to get readers to reexamine how they think about poverty and issues of race. One important point he stresses is that poverty is not innate or permanent, but rather, is influenced by social structures and relationships, such as that between landlord and tenant. “A lot of people talk about poverty like it’s a permanent state of being,” he says, “like the poor are a plant variety.” Instead, he says, poverty is a process that involves a victim, a system that produces poverty, and people who benefit from that system—and he challenges each of us to recognize our role.

His findings on poverty and housing will be published for a broader audience next year when his latest book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, is published. In 2007 he published an ethnographic study of wildland firefighters, On the Fireline (which won the Max Weber Award for Distinguished Scholarship). In 2009 Desmond and Mustafa Emirbayer saw their textbook, Racial Domination, Racial Progress: The Sociology of Race in America, released, and this year they published a companion volume, The Racial Order. Desmond is also the editor of the inaugural issue of RSF: Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences, which will deal with severe deprivation.

Several other academics whose work touches on social or behavioral issues were included in the new class, which as usual includes writers, artists, performers and STEM researchers among its honorees.

University of Toronto classicist Dimitri Nakassis, for example, uses philology, archaeology, and contemporary social and economic theory to study classical Greece. Stanford University computer scientist Christopher Ré, on the other hand, has created an ‘inference engine’ to analyze unprocessable data –like illustrations or images—on the web, while Princeton University historian Marina Rustow uses ancient legal documents, letters and other written materials “to shed new light on Jewish life and on the broader society of the medieval Middle East.”

The MacArthur Fellowships, often referred to as “genius grants,” provide a five-year grants of $625,000 “to individuals who show exceptional creativity in their work and the prospect for still more in the future,” according to the foundation. While the grants themselves are viewed as “seed money” for future endeavors, there are no strings attached on how the money is spent and no requirement to report on its subsequent use. Individuals cannot apply for the fellowship, and nominations made by other parties are kept confidential.

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