UChicago economist’s innovative research honored with 1.5 million euro prize

Prof. Ufuk Akcigit will study Germany’s east-west divide by turning a new lens on data

As a doctoral student in economics, Prof. Ufuk Akcigit found theoretical models to be too abstract, too untethered from hard, real-world data.

So he decided to fill the gap, developing a way to ground theory on a deep statistical foundation. That pioneering approach led him a decade later to the University of Chicago’s Kenneth C. Griffin Department of Economics—and now, has earned him a prestigious prize that can further the practical applications of his research.

On Sept. 19, Akcigit was named winner of the Max Planck-Humboldt Research Award, given annually to innovative researchers outside Germany to fund work within the country. Akcigit will receive 1.5 million euros to conduct five years of research on the economic gap between eastern and western Germany, as well as 80,000 euros in personal prize money.

“It was a very exciting outcome for me,” said Akcigit, who has helped shape how scholars think about economic growth and innovation. “This is not about a particular paper. It was the appreciation of my entire research agenda.”

Akcigit plans to use the award to investigate how and why eastern Germany continues to lag behind its western counterpart, even three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall. He will collaborate with the Halle Institute for Economic Research, which holds some of the most extensive economic data available on the region’s firms and individuals.

The partnership provides Akcigit a chance to tackle a question that has lingered on his mind for years.

“I’ve always been curious, but I never had the occasion to study it in detail because it requires some rich microdata,” said Akcigit, a Turkish citizen who was born in Germany. “You need to have uniquely detailed information. Until now, I didn’t have this first piece.”

By applying his research approach, Akcigit plans to interrogate even the basic assumptions undergirding economic policy, such as federal funding for research and development in Germany. Challenging such conventions, he said, will pave the way for stronger data-driven policy—even if some of that evidence confirms existing theories.

Akcigit joined the Kenneth C. Griffin Department of Economics at UChicago in 2015 for these opportunities to impact the world through economic analysis. By combining macroeconomic and microeconomic perspectives, he has produced research cited by numerous reports, including those issued by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the administration of President Barack Obama. Akcigit is currently consulting with the IMF, the Danish Ministry of Science and Education, and the Central Bank of the Republic of Turkey—analyzing for them the role and effectiveness of industrial policies.

Making his latest honor “extra special,” Akcigit said, is the fact that he is the first person to be recognized in the social sciences. The Max Planck-Humboldt Research Award was inaugurated last year with the selection of University of Edinburgh astrophysicist Catherine Heymans, and will continue to alternate each year between the natural and engineering sciences, the humanities and social sciences, and the life sciences.

The award is funded by Germany’s Federal Ministry for Education and Research.

The next five years will allow Akcigit to help train the next generation of economists. He plans to use his funding to build a team of scholars in Germany to work in conjunction with his existing team of UChicago students and postdocs. The new team, which will consist of about six members, will draw primarily from the Halle Institute.

The two teams will meet once a week via teleconference, with Akcigit also traveling occasionally to Europe. That type of international collaboration could foster research breakthroughs in both countries.

“Bringing cutting-edge research to Germany—that is an important goal of the award,” said Anja Karliczek, Federal Minister of Education and Research. “We hope that Ufuk Akcigit’s empirically influenced research results will lead to a more precise understanding of the causes of the economic differences between East and West Germany.”

Karliczek will present the award to Akcigit on Nov. 5 alongside Martin Stratmann, president of the Max Planck Society; and Hans-Christian Pape, president of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. In addition, they will honor University of Texas psychologist Elliot Tucker-Drob with the Max Planck-Humboldt Medal, which comes with a prize of 60,000 euros.