The University of Chicago News Office
June 20, 2006 Press Contact: William Harms
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Professor James Heckman receives UCD Ulysses Medal

On June 7, 2006, James Heckman, the Henry Schultz Distinguished Service Professor in Economics and the Harris School of Public Policy, was awarded the Ulysses Medal from University College Dublin for his contribution to research in economics and human behavior.

The presentation of the medal was followed by a lecture entitled “The Economics of Child Development.” The lecture was part of a week-long visit during which he also launched a collaborative research initiative into intervention design between the UCD Geary Institute and the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago, funded in part by Atlantic Foundation and the Irish Government.

Heckman has taken a very strong interest in the economic benefits of investment in early child well-being. His work shows that the early childhood environment has a direct influence on the subsequent economic success of that child into adulthood. He argues that early intervention lowers the cost of later investment. His arguments for very early intervention for children from socially deprived backgrounds have not always been welcomed by those who advocate initiatives aimed at teenagers and adults.

“Whereas the traditional argument for providing enriched environments for disadvantaged young children is based on considerations of fairness, experimental interventions targeted toward disadvantaged children have much higher economic returns than later interventions, such as reduced pupil-teacher ratios, public job training and convict rehabilitation programs,” argues Heckman.

In his current research, Heckman draws on neuroscience to demonstrate that factors including earnings, employment, college attendance, teenage pregnancy and participation in crime strongly depend on cognitive and non-cognitive abilities. In other words, they depend on the person’s formal skills and their personality traits. Influencing these personality traits (such as socialization) has as much an impact as formal education on these later-life outcomes. According to Heckman, “skills beget skills,” so the earlier a child receives a foundation for learning (whether social or intellectual skills), the easier it is for that child to learn -- and that in turn leads to self-reinforcement to learn more.

Put in terms of return on investment in human capital, Heckman shows that the earlier the intervention the higher the return. One study shows a 10-fold return on every dollar invested in 0-to-3-year olds. “Although investments in older individuals realize less return overall, such investments are still clearly beneficial. Indeed, the advantages gained from effective early interventions are sustained best when they are followed by continued high-quality learning experiences. So, due to dynamic complementarity, early investments must be followed by later investments if maximum value is to be realized.”

UCD Ulysses Medal

UCD awarded the inaugural Ulysses Medal to Dr. Phillip Sharp (MIT) on March 10, 2005 for his outstanding contribution to biomolecular discovery and to advances in medical treatment of diseases such as multiple sclerosis, hepatitis and cancer. Dr. Sharp was awarded the Nobel Prize for his discovery that an individual gene does not have to be a single, continuous stretch of DNA, but instead can be made up of several DNA segments. This discovery had major implications for genetic discovery and research into heredity diseases.

Professor Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, was awarded the UCD Ulysses Medal on May 13, 2006 in recognition of his work for entrepreneurship in the global public interest over the past 35 years. Professor Schwab founded the World Economic Forum in 1971 as a non-profit foundation, and under his leadership it promotes global partnerships as a means of tackling issues such as third world debt, international trade, the global TB epidemic and the Middle East peace process.

Professor James Heckman is the third recipient of the UCD Ulysses Medal.
Last modified at 02:13 PM CST on Tuesday, June 20, 2006.

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