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Economics Nobelist Sen To Give Director's Cultural Lecture

By Celia Hooper

Welfare economist Amartya K. Sen has been called "poverty's philosopher," "the conscience of economics," "champion of the underprivileged" and a "cult figure" in economics — among the more complimentary epithets. In a special NIH Director's Cultural Lecture on Wednesday, June 2, at noon, the controversial 1998 Nobel laureate in economics will discuss "Conflicting Principles of Health Evaluation," at Masur Auditorium, Bldg. 10.

Dr. Amartya Sen

NIH director Dr. Harold Varmus says, "Sen's writings on the determinants of health — in particular on the role of education, even in the face of severe poverty, as a means to extend life and improve well-being — are essential guides for those of us concerned about disparities in health status in the U.S. and abroad."

An outspoken critic of traditional Western models of economic development, Sen first shook up the economics establishment with his 1970 book, Collective Choice and Social Welfare. His best-known work, the 1981 book Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, challenges the intuitive notion that shortage of food is necessarily the most important cause of famine. A steady stream of books, essays and articles from Sen's 30-year international academic career have ranged from technical analyses of economic models and measures of poverty to practical observations on the relationships of government policies to economic development. Threading through his work is a focus on how resources are distributed in societies, with emphasis on the poor. His essays address the role of public utilities, health care, sanitation, literacy, the media, and gender discrimination and other societal and government characteristics in economic progress and famine.

In an interview following the awarding of his Nobel Prize, Sen said his academic focus on famine and poverty stems in part from his childhood. "I happened to observe from inside a major famine of the 20th century — the Bengal famine, which occurred in India in 1943 — in fact, the last famine that occurred in India, in which close to 3 million people died. I was a nine-and-a-half-year-old boy at that time." Sen said he has "very striking memories from that period." He has retained his Indian citizenship throughout more than a decade as an academician at Harvard and years spent in England, and despite his sometimes-harsh criticism of government policies in his homeland.

Sen was born in 1933 in Shantiniketan, Bengal, India, and was given the name "Amartya" by poet Rabindranath Tagore, the first Asian Nobel laureate.

Varmus says that "beyond the importance and seriousness of his message, Sen is also a witty and charming speaker, so I urge everyone on the NIH campus to make an effort to attend this important event." The lecture will be multicast via the NIH M-BONE, and overflow seating will be available in Lipsett Amphitheater.


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