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The Klaus J. Jacobs Research Prize

2023 Research Prize – Janet M. Currie

Princeton University’s Henry Putnam Professor of Economics and Public Affairs Janet Currie receives the 2023 Klaus J. Jacobs Research Prize for her foundational work on the influence of context such as policy decisions, environment, or health systems on child development. Her pioneering economics studies show the importance of the fetal period and early childhood, along with the cost-effectiveness of early interventions during these critical life stages. Currie is best known for decades of work showing how poverty and government anti-poverty policies can affect the lifelong health and well-being of children.

Currie has developed new methods for assessing the effects of early interventions through her innovative use of administrative data such as natality and mortality records paired with new geocoding techniques. She and her colleagues have also identified “natural experiments”—such as bouts of expansion and retraction of public health insurance to pregnant people and children in the United States—that make it possible to evaluate the effects of large-scale social interventions on children’s physical, socio-behavioral, and economic outcomes.

Identifying Cost-Effective Interventions

Currie serves as co-director of the Center for Health and Wellbeing at Princeton and co-directs the Program on Families and Children at the National Bureau of Economic Research. Currie was the first woman chair of the Department of Economics at Columbia University from 2006 to 2009, and chair of the Department of Economics at Princeton from 2014 to 2018. She was named one of the top 10 women in economics by the World Economic Forum in July 2015.

Her research on the effects of expanding Medicaid public health insurance for pregnant people and children in the 1990s in the United States provided some of the first evidence that expansion of coverage can reduce infant and child mortality and is one of the most cost-effective social interventions. These findings helped support the passage of the U.S. Affordable Care Act in 2014. Currie’s work on the U.S. Head Start early education program showed that a “fade-out” in the effects of the program on test scores was not evenly distributed among participants. Instead, she found that longer-term effects of the program on education completion and crime reduction are strongest for disadvantaged children, spurring an international interest in expanding early childhood interventions. Another major aspect of her research focuses on low levels of pollution exposure—from hazardous waste disposal to motor vehicle exhaust—during pregnancy, and its impacts on infant health at birth, especially among marginalized racial and ethnic communities.

Improving Child and Adolescent Mental Health

More recently, Currie has turned to the study of interventions aimed at improving child and adolescent mental health and training the next generation of researchers in this field. According to the World Health Organization, one in seven children 10-19 years of age is affected by a mental health disorder, but most of these disorders are unrecognized and untreated. Her research within the United States notes that when treatments for mental health disorders are prescribed, these treatments can differ substantially among children with the same diagnoses, depending on their geographical location and the training of their clinicians. “This is an area that is ripe for the use of new tools such as machine learning on large-scale administrative medical records, as I have been demonstrating in recent research,” explains Currie. “I would also like to explore a broader range of potential interventions, both with clinicians and through schools.”

Over the next five years Currie will focus on the extent to which interventions such as training, guidelines, and algorithm decision-making can improve clinical practice in treating mental health disorders. She will also examine the extent to which change in school environment and interventions in schools can affect child mental health at a population level. These interventions could include anti-bullying regulations, placement of mental health practitioners in schools, and reforming testing and tracking patterns that could be exacerbating mental health issues among students.