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Back in Groningen: Gerard van den Berg

Date:23 January 2021
Professor Gerard van den Berg
Professor Gerard van den Berg

After his time as a student at the Faculty of Economics, Gerard van den Berg, Professor of Health Econometrics, is back in Groningen. Van den Berg is well-known for his research on the long-run effects of conditions very early in life (economic condition, nutrition, stress exposure, and so on) on cognition, health and economic productivity later in life. 

Why did you choose Groningen?

“It was a case of all pieces of the puzzle falling into place. First, Groningen has a dedicated focus on health research, including successful interdisciplinary cooperation within the Aletta School of Public Health. This fits in with my own research interests in the effects of the economy on health and the effects of health on economic outcomes. I am therefore also happy to have positions both at the university and at the university medical center.

A second major advantage of Groningen for me is the strong tradition in econometrics and quantitative research in social sciences. My roots are in econometrics (as a student in Groningen!) and I always strive to use or apply novel methods to improve the quality of empirical work.

A third reason to choose Groningen is the sustained good atmosphere in the economics department. If you are used to such a working environment for many years then you may just take it for granted, but in fact it is surprisingly rare to encounter this in the academic world.

Last but not least, as a fourth reason, there is the exceptional quality of life in Groningen. Again, those who have lived here since many years may not even notice it, but if you come from overcrowded areas or from an ill-governed country with malfunctioning public sectors then it is quite a difference. Of course, there are the earthquakes, and I keep wondering why the North hasn’t gotten more generous compensation, but that is a different story.”

Could you tell us more about your previous career/your career so far?

“I spent most of my career at the VU University Amsterdam (1993-2009). This is where I became a full professor in 1996 at the age of 34. I was head of the economics department for a period of six years and I guided the department through a generational transition as well as a transition into micro-oriented economics and applied econometrics. In 2009 I was awarded the Alexander von Humboldt Professorship Prize which consisted of a research subsidy of 3.5 million euro as well as a permanent chair at the University of Mannheim in Germany. In 2015 I moved to Bristol in the UK where I got heavily involved in research collaborations with epidemiologists. In the past, I have also held short-term professorships in Princeton and Stockholm.

During these years, I have always worked with large data sets covering different aspects of individual behavior. Sometimes this includes registers on health or taxes or other sensitive information. The data are typically from continental European countries. A “push factor” in my decision to leave the UK is that with the upcoming Brexit it is likely that my data access would be adversely affected. Of course, the way Brexit seems to be playing out, it will also have many other disadvantages for the academic community there.”

Your chair is in micro-econometrics. What issues are dealt with in your research?

“In this field we aim to understand individual behavior by way of empirical analyses using real-life data. In addition, we aim to find out if there are causal effects from one variable or characteristic or event on another. This includes studying the effectiveness of policy measures and other treatments. In all this work, we develop novel methods hand in hand with applications. But in the end, the research we do is driven by the aim to understand behavior.

As a concrete example, I am interested in effects of active labor market policies for the unemployed. Recently I have been involved in the design, implementation and analysis of randomized controlled trials involving 10,000s of unemployed individuals who are assigned to different treatments or programs. Even though these are randomized experiments, the analysis of the data poses some econometric challenges. For example, how do we figure out if the total effect is affected by private information of the unemployed about future treatments? These are issues that are natural to consider in economics but are less prominent in experiments in medical sciences or biology.

I have also been interested since many years in the effects of recessions on health. This topic has gained relevance in the current corona crisis, as recent lockdowns have been leading to dramatic recessions. Pundits and politicians have framed the damage to the economy as a price to be paid for the protection of health (“health is more important that the economy”). That is highly misleading. Recessions and economic adversity have negative health effects themselves. We know that they cause worse health later in life for those born in a recession, worse health and cognition for children who are excluded from daycare and school, increases in stress and suicides, worse nutrition for adults suffering from poverty, and more mental and physical health problems for victims of domestic violence. This may sound dramatic, but bear in mind that, all in all, large sections of society are currently being affected. The health losses and costs for children and prime-aged individuals will play out over many decades, possibly even into subsequent generations.”

And how about societal relevance?

“I think it is hard to find many fields in economics where the immediate societal relevance of research is so high. Let me give you another example, from a project about sanctions for young unemployed welfare recipients. Sanctions are punitive reductions in welfare benefits that the unemployed receive if they don’t search hard enough for a job. In Germany the sanctions regime was extremely tough. After a few minor offences people would lose their benefits completely. This drove many youths out of welfare into homelessness and so on. These people disappear from the radar and there is a serious risk that they turn their back to mainstream society. Due to our study, the policy was modified so that youths are not punished so heavily anymore. This has substantially improved the quality of life of millions of youths every year, year after year. It is immensely satisfying to have such an impact.”

What can we expect of you in the future?

“Often it is not clear why economic conditions early in life affect health much later in life. It is interesting to understand the pathway from cause to outcome, and one can often distinguish between economic or social pathways on the one hand and biological or medical pathways on the other. I would like to be able to know more about this. In line with this I aim to work on econometric methods to properly analyze such pathways.

I am also interested in health differences between Dutch and Germans in the border region. To what extent can these be understood by institutional settings, and to what extent do economic, genetic and environmental issues play a role? For this, I aim to intensify collaborations with universities and research centers in Germany.”

For more information:

Professor Gerard van den Berg: