Professor Matthew Masten Wins National Science Foundation CAREER Award

Thursday, July 16, 2020
professor matt masten

Assistant professor Matthew Masten has been awarded a CAREER Award by the National Science Foundation. NSF’s Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program “supports the early career-development activities of those teacher-scholars who most effectively integrate research and education within the context of the mission of their organization.”  This prestigious award is specifically given to junior faculty, and provides recipients with a federal grant for research and education activities for five years. 

 Mastenpart of Duke Economics since 2013, is an econometrician working on identification and causal inference. Masten’s proposal, entitled “Sensitivity Analysis in Econometrics,” focuses on developing new tools for checking the assumptions that researchers make when they do data analysis. “This is important since inappropriate assumptions may lead to poor predictions about the impact of different public policies,” said Masten.

The idea for the project started six years ago, when Masten was working with co-author Alexandre Poirier (Georgetown University) on a specific problem. He explained that a common approach to learning about cause and effect is to use "natural experiments,'' where treatments are thought to be randomly assigned, even though an experiment was not actually performed. Since randomization is not guaranteed, it's possible that treatments were not actually randomly assigned. They wanted to know how researchers could measure the impact of possible randomization failures on their conclusions. That work led to a new set of questions, and it snowballed from there, ultimately leading to the set of topics in this proposal.

Masten is looking forward to continuing his work on the topic. Another facet of the project is education. When Masten first came to Duke, he created a series of short videos on causal inference. The videos are nontechnical explanations of the basic methods social scientists use to learn about causality. As part of the new award, he will create a new series of videos, focusing on the topic of sensitivity analysis. His plan is to cover both some of the new research as well as much of the larger existing literature on this topic. Masten’s goal is to make the general ideas as broadly accessible as possible.

He is also looking forward to using the award to support graduate students. “Research is a very social activity,” Masten explained, “I have worked with fantastic students Duke, and it's one of my favorite aspects of this job.”

Masten was excited but surprised to learn he had received the award. “I had submitted 3 regular NSF grant proposals before---which were all turned down---and I knew the chances were low,” he said. He acknowledged that putting together the proposal was a team effort, with assistance from the departmental grants team and fellow faculty along the way. “Getting quality feedback is so important, and I am very grateful to have such an excellent research environment in our department,” Masten said.

Department chair James Roberts spoke proudly of Masten’s accomplishment. “In some ways this award acknowledges what many of us already knew about Matt: he is not only a wonderful teacher and colleague, but he is also an absolutely first-rate scholar. We are thrilled that his work is getting this support and publicity. We in the department are very proud to call Matt one of our own.”

 Please join Duke Econ in congratulating Masten on this outstanding achievement.