Nobel laureates bring UChicago-style debate to new economic policy series

Lars Peter Hansen, James Heckman welcome scholars for ‘deeper understanding’ of issues

Too often, the results of academic research are elevated over the process. Two Nobel-winning economists are trying to shift that conversation—and to further the University of Chicago’s tradition of intense, scholarly debate.

On April 25, Profs. Lars Peter Hansen and James Heckman will launch the University of Chicago Policy Forum, a new quarterly series in which they will moderate debates on economic policy with top scholars from around the world.

“What we ought to be talking about is an intellectual environment that nurtures better social science going forward, but which doesn’t necessarily produce immediate answers,” said Hansen, one of the world’s leading macroeconomists.

The inaugural event will assess the contributions of behavioral economics to the field, while future forums could tackle topics ranging from climate change to migration to the implications of big data. Hansen and Heckman hope their series prompts deeper thinking both on campus and among curious laypeople.

“There’s a missing link in the chain of ideas from pure academic research to public policy,” said Heckman, a world-renowned expert on the economics of human development.

This month's panel will feature economists Colin Camerer (California Institute of Technology), Michael Woodford (Columbia University) and Itzhak Gilboa (Tel Aviv University). The forum is co-sponsored by the Harris School of Public Policy—which will host the first event at the Keller Center—as well as Hansen’s Macro Finance Research Program and Heckman’s Center for the Economics of Human Development.

“We want to understand what we know, but also what we don’t know,” said Hansen, the David Rockefeller Distinguished Service Professor in Economics, Statistics and the Booth School of Business. “That can help inform future research, and also better policy. You can have much healthier social sciences, as well as a much better framing of policy questions.”

Many academic conferences focus on subfields within disciplines, or center around more recent research. With this forum, Hansen and Heckman hope not only to collapse those intellectual enclaves, but to provide a stage for top scholars to address big questions—teasing out overlooked nuances, or questioning assumptions too often held as fact.

“Here at Chicago, we have a very strong social science tradition,” said Heckman, the Henry Schultz Distinguished Service Professor in Economics and the College. “That will allow us to create a basis for understanding the policy, and then understand the likelihood of success or failure. We’re trying to get at a deeper understanding of what’s going on.”

The “give and take of debate,” he added, is something that has long been essential to UChicago’s scholarly approach.

“You let the tectonic plates grind together,” Heckman said. “They may produce volcanoes, but they may also produce continents and Hawaiian Islands.”

Heckman and Hansen also plan to invite scholars from other disciplines to future events. A discussion on the economics of climate change, for example, wouldn’t be very productive without the presence of a climate scientist.

“We want to knock down boundaries, not create a wall around economics,” Hansen said.

Hansen also noted that policymaking too often hinges on advocacy, which requires scholars to project their expertise to sway those in Washington. That approach can inhibit honest intellectual exchange, and limit the sort of perspectives that spur scholars to rethink ideas over time.

That’s one aspect of policymaking that the two economists hope to change. The University of Chicago Policy Forum, Hansen insisted, isn’t about showing off debating skills. “It will be an important opening for discussions,” he said, “but not the closure of them.”

Added Heckman: “The aftermath will probably be much more important than the event itself.”