Academic Research Awards: Smart Ideas with Real-World Impact

It’s hard to define, hard to achieve and hard to quantify, but the FT’s Responsible Business Education Awards show that positive social impact can be made by business school academics, through their research. Not only does their work tackle important societal issues, but their findings lead to changes in policy or practice.

Some submissions for the “best business school academic research” category described useful work that influenced business practice but was more like consulting than original research. Other entries highlighted ideas that had been published in academic journals but were either too theoretical or provided little evidence of application.

Many others have limited their definition of impact to dissemination metrics, such as the number of downloads of an article or the extent to which the research was cited in the media or in Twitter references.

This feature appears in the January 19 edition of FT Responsible Business Education magazine

Yet a significant number combined intellectual originality, a focus on pressing social issues, and efforts to inspire organizations to make change. In doing so, their authors have gone far beyond the traditional goal of being published in a prestigious academic journal – a priority because that’s what many business schools look at when deciding which professors to hire, retain or promote.

Health care for whom?

Sendhil Mullainathan, a professor of computation and behavioral science at the Chicago Booth School of Business, whose research paper was one of four winners chosen by a panel of independent judges convened by the FT, found large-scale racial bias in algorithms used by insurers to predict the health care needs of millions of American patients.

He and his three co-authors analyzed how patients were identified for a program that offered additional medical support to those at high risk. Assuming that past health care costs were a good indicator of need, the algorithm ignored the fact that black patients were costing the system less because they lacked access or received lower levels of care, unfairly reducing the number identified for additional help by more than half.

“Even though these algorithmic tools are widespread, we’re only now learning what things are most important to them,” Mullainathan says. “This project has really changed the way of thinking for the whole field. We were so focused on the inputs that we lost sight of the outputs that the algorithm was optimizing.

A striking aspect of his study – which mirrors other strong business school submissions – is that it involved multiple researchers from different institutions and disciplines, allowing for greater cross-fertilization of expertise, approaches and applications.

Mullainathan has worked with physicians, who often combine clinical practice with academic research. The first author of the paper was Ziad Obermeyer, from the School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley, who spent four years as a physician at Mass General Brigham, a hospital group in Boston where the co-author Brian Powers practices medicine. The other author, Christine Vogeli, works at the Mongan Institute Health Policy Center, which also reports to Mass General Brigham.

A second distinguishing feature of their research was that the academic publication in which it appeared was not typically associated with business schools – or necessarily credited by them when evaluating their faculty. Their article appeared instead in the prestigious journal Science.

A third feature was the authors’ efforts to do more than just publish the research. “Articles are just the start of a conversation,” says Mullainathan. “If you want to make an impact, you have to do a lot afterwards.”

Chicago Booth's Sendhil Mullainathan worked with doctors to expose racial bias in US health insurance

Chicago Booth’s Sendhil Mullainathan worked with doctors to expose racial bias in US Medicare © Alamy

Its research team reached out to the health insurer, tested its approach with its widest range of customers, and developed an alternative algorithm that the company adopted to reduce racial bias in its policies. This helped trigger similar changes by other insurers and led to discussions with regulators and lawmakers to step up scrutiny.

Chicago Booth then developed a free online site Algorithmic bias playbook for senior business executives, decision makers and healthcare technical specialists, which has been uploaded and shared hundreds of times. He has since extended his work to applications in other fields, including criminal justice and financial services.

Fighting waste, saving jobs

These traits were also evident in the second winner, a work led by Fiona Marshall at the School of Business, Management and Economics at the University of Sussex in the UK. Drawing on long-standing partnerships with academics and civil society organizations in India, she and her co-authors analyzed urban waste management practices in the specialist journal Frontiers in Sustainable Cities.

They highlighted the limitations of India’s response to the large and growing problem of litter dumped in public spaces. By promoting centralized incinerators, authorities have generated additional toxic emissions and undermined the livelihoods of waste pickers who traditionally collect and recycle waste.

Protecting the livelihoods of waste pickers in India was a major concern of the study co-authored by Fiona Marshall of the University of Sussex

Protecting the livelihoods of waste pickers in India was a major concern of the study co-authored by Fiona Marshall of the University of Sussex

Academics have worked with government and private contractors to help develop alternative decentralized approaches that employ waste pickers to separate materials for recycling and produce compost and biogas. They have written a series of academic papers, but also more accessible writing guidance note.

Marshall points out that for such work, senior scholars must help their younger colleagues balance the heavy teaching loads and the pressure to publish. “The impact takes a lot of time and effort and doesn’t directly determine career trajectories,” she says. “As a line manager and mentor, you have a responsibility to make sure it matters. Time spent feeding is simply incredibly time consuming.

Fight cancer with marketing

The work of a winning third team with Shrihari Sridhar at Mays School of Business from Texas A&M University explored ways to improve liver cancer outcomes drawing on digital and marketing expertise. Sridhar worked with lead author Yixing Chen to Mendoza College of Commerce at the University of Notre Dame, as well as colleagues from the Ivy College of Business, Iowa State University and Jones Graduate School of Business, Rice University, alongside two researchers from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.

They analyzed why liver cancer screening rates were low among high-risk patients, deploying machine learning techniques to understand the characteristics of those who responded best to different prompts to be tested, such as letters, personalized emails or phone calls. This allowed them to recommend targeted approaches that would be more likely to succeed than the usual “one size fits all” outreach.

“Unfortunately, there are many ways in which marketing is used to target customers, but if you channel the power of message personalization to know when patients will respond, you can bring in all the right aspects,” says Sridhar.

He and his colleagues published in the Journal of Marketing, which popularized their findings in a blog and associated webinar. They continued their research in medical journals, expanded their work to larger trials at different medical centers in the United States and Singapore, and tested the approach for colon cancer.

Big data for small farmers

The fourth winner of the awards used big data to analyze risk and risk mitigation behaviors farmers in tanzania encourage the subscription to a local agricultural insurance. Enrico Biffis and Erik Chavez in London Imperial College Business School worked with Alexis Louaas and Pierre Picard at the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris to combine data on weather, crop yields and agricultural characteristics.

They partnered with the World Bank, the reinsurance company Munich Re and local business groups. By bundling bank financing and farmers’ purchases, such as drought-tolerant seeds, with insurance, they were able to increase financial support to farmers while reducing their level of risk.

Chavez and his co-authors are now working with the African Development Bank and regional reinsurers to expand the program to other countries. “Getting your hands dirty with real-world problems allows you to formulate research questions that aren’t otherwise present in academia,” he says.

The business reinvented

The judges also highly commended Grow the pie, a book by Alex Edmans, professor of finance at London Business School, which makes a business case for companies to provide purpose as well as profit. His book was based on rigorous academic research, and he avoided offers from commercial publishers eager to simplify his nuanced message in favor of publishing a peer-reviewed book.

For impact, he provided free online teaching notes and slides to help other teachers use his book in business schools and beyond, and was invited to speak and share his ideas with leading consultancies, banks and investors. The Industrial Bank of Korea has even adopted its term “pieeconomy” as part of its strategy.


Winners and judges are listed below; the complete list is available here.

The judges

Gargee Ghosh
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Usha Haley
Wichita State University

Jennifer Howard
GrenvilleUniversity of Cambridge

Andrew Jack
FinancialTimes

Eric Johnson
RTI International

Erika Kraemer-Mbula
University of Johannesburg

Dan Leclair
Global Network of Business Schools

Tom Levitt
Focus sector 4

Michael Morley
University of Limerick / International Federation of Scholarly Management Associations

David Reibstein
Wharton/Responsible Research in Business and Management

James Wilson
University of Sheffield / Research Institute of Research

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