Three economists win Nobel for their research on how real life events impact society


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Displayed is a file photo of a Nobel Prize medal on Dec. 8, 2020. The Nobel Prize in economic sciences was awarded to three U.S-based professors for their pioneering work with «natural experiments.»

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Jacquelyn Martin/AP


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Controlled experiments are common in science and medicine: they allow, for example, to test new drugs by carefully selecting participants and controlling vital aspects to ensure objectivity.

But they are harder in social sciences where it can often be impractical or unethical to conduct randomized trials – unless a real-life event or policy change happens that allow researchers to conduct what are called «natural experiments.»

«Natural experiments are everywhere,» said Eva Mork, a member of the prize committee. «Thanks to the contributions of the laureates, we researchers are today able to answer key questions for economic and social policy. And thereby the laureates work has greatly benefited society at large.»

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The Nobel Economics Prize committee members announce the winners of Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences on Monday. David Card, Joshua Angrist and Guido Imbens were given the award for their research of real-life events and policy changes.

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A McDonald’s sign is shown on July 28 in Houston, Texas. One of the winners of the Nobel Prize in economics on Monday was cited for his work in studying the fast food industry to help determine how minimum wages impact employment.

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A McDonald’s sign is shown on July 28 in Houston, Texas. One of the winners of the Nobel Prize in economics on Monday was cited for his work in studying the fast food industry to help determine how minimum wages impact employment.

Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Studying cause-and-effect in real life

Meanwhile, Angrist and Imbens were recognized for methodological research that helps tease out cause and effect from these accidental case studies.

During the pandemic, natural experiments have allowed researchers to study the effects of mask mandates, social distancing policies, and supplemental unemployment benefits.

Imbens said he was «stunned» to get the congratulatory wake-up call at about 2 a.m. in California.

«I was absolutely thrilled to hear the news,» Imbens told reporters. «In particular hearing that I got to share this with Josh Angrist and David Card, who are both very good friends of mine.»

He noted that Angrist was best man at his wedding.

Imbens said he had no idea how he would spend his share of the prize money.

  • Guido Imbens
  • Joshua Angrist
  • David Card
  • Nobel Prize in Economics
  • minimum wage

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