The phone rang at 4 a.m. on Oct. 15 in Alvin Roth’s home, waking the Harvard Business School professor from his sleep.
The news was good: he had won the Nobel Prize in economics from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. A member of Harvard Business School’s negotiation, organizations and markets unit and Harvard University’s Department of Economics, Roth was named co-winner with Professor Emeritus Lloyd S. Shapley of the University of California, Los Angeles.
The Swedish Academy recognized the pair for their theoretical and practical contributions to solving a central economic problem—how to match different agents as well as possible. “Students have to be matched with schools, and donors of human organs with patients in need of a transplant,” the Royal Swedish Academy explained in a press release. “How can such a matching be accomplished as efficiently as possible? What methods are beneficial to what groups? The prize rewards two scholars who have answered these questions on a journey from abstract theory on stable allocations to practical design of market institutions.”
Dean Nohria: ‘An extraordinary and well-deserved honor’
“This is an extraordinary and well-deserved honor for Al Roth, who in the best tradition of Harvard Business School has applied his expertise to solve difficult and important real-world problems,” said HBS Dean Nitin Nohria in a statement. “His work has had, and will continue to have, an enormous impact on the lives of thousands of people in this country and around the world. Beyond all this, he has long been a magnificent mentor to his doctoral students, sharing his knowledge, encouraging them in their research, and advising and helping them in their job search. He has made an indelible mark at Harvard Business School in many ways, and my colleagues and I are overjoyed and proud that he has joined the select ranks of Nobel Laureates.”
On leave of absence from Harvard, Roth got the news in California where he is teaching at Stanford University. At the end of the calendar year, he will become Professor Emeritus at Harvard and join the Stanford faculty full-time.
Roth is one of the founders of the New England program for Kidney Exchange
Roth’s work has long focused on the practical, including the National Resident Matching Program, through which approximately 20,000 students in their final year of medical school annually find their first employment as residents at U.S. hospitals. In addition, he helped design the matching systems used each year in New York City and Boston to match thousands of students to public high schools. He is also one of the founders and designers of the New England Program for Kidney Exchange and has served as chair of the American Economic Association’s Ad Hoc Committee on the Job Market, which has designed several changes in the market for economists looking for positions after earning their doctorates.
Added Brian J. Hall, the School’s Albert H. Gordon Professor of Business Administration and head of the Negotiation, Organizations & Markets Unit, “Al Roth started the field of market design, showing that many types of markets were much more efficient if they were designed well rather than allowed to evolve naturally. Among his many contributions, Al’s research was crucial in showing how a kidney exchange system could be created to help match kidney donors and kidney recipients without having to resort to a market where organs are bought and sold. He is one of the few economists who can actually point to real people whose lives have been saved by his work. Al is also one of the best mentors in all of academia. He can often be found having tea with a cadre of his Ph.D. students, post–docs, and other faculty members. In this way, he makes all those around him better by helping them with their research. Al’s former students are now at most of the leading business schools and economics departments in the world, working on thorny market design problems whose solutions will improve many people’s lives.”
A prolific writer, Roth has contributed papers to numerous professional journals and authored, coauthored, or edited many books, book chapters, and working papers.
He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Econometric Society and has also won Guggenheim and Sloan Fellowships.
A 1971 graduate of Columbia, Roth earned both master’s and doctoral degrees in Operations Research from Stanford University in 1973 and 1974, respectively. He joined the Harvard Business School faculty from the University of Pittsburgh in July 1998 as a member of the School’s Negotiation, Organizations & Markets Unit, where he played a key role in the Unit’s teaching, research, and course development initiatives and activities, including the creation of the HBS Computer Lab for Experimental Research (CLER), which manages a pool of paid human participants and provides researchers with dozens of computer stations in a central lab. “It’s always been obvious to social scientists and business scholars that there are lots of things that you can’t learn in the laboratory, but it is becoming increasingly obvious that there are some things that you may not be able to learn anywhere else,” said Roth, a longtime champion of experimental economics, in a December 2011 article in HBS Working Knowledge.