MIT’s Heidi Williams Named as One of the Decade’s Eight Best Young Economists

By TAP Staff Blogger

Posted on January 9, 2019


The Economist has named MIT’s Heidi Williams among "the decade's eight best young economists." Professor Williams is lauded for her pursuit of a "more rigorous understanding of technological progress in medicine and health care."


The Economist sought recommendations from senior members of the profession, and narrowed down the 60 recommendations to eight economists they think represent the future of the discipline. This is the fourth time the magazine has assembled such a list.


Our Pick of the Decade’s Eight Best Young Economists” discusses Professor Heidi Williams:


Ms. Williams has exploited a number of institutional kinks in the American patent system to study medical innovation. Some patent examiners, for example, are known to be harder to impress than others. That allowed her to compare genes that were patented by lenient examiners with largely similar genes denied patents by their stricter colleagues. She and her co-author found that patents did not, as some claimed, inhibit follow-on research by other firms. This suggested that patent-holders were happy to let others use their intellectual property (for a fee).


Heidi Williams is an Associate Professor (with tenure) in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Department of Economics, and a Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). Her research agenda focuses on investigating the causes and consequences of technological change in health care markets. She studies how intellectual property rules, such as patents, encourage or discourage innovation in health care, from the development of new cancer treatments to the study of specific genes.


Professor Williams is the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (2015) for her work that looks at the effects of patent policies and technology on medical research and health care. The high-profile annual fellowships, unofficially known as “genius grants,” include an unrestricted award of $625,000. Additionally, she received an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship (2015). In 2016, Professor Williams received the Kauffman/iHEA (International Health Economics Association) Arrow Award for Best Paper in Health Economics.


Below are a few of the articles written by Professor Williams:


How Do Patents Affect Research Investments?
(NBER Working Paper #23088, January 2017)

Summary: Do patents benefit society by spurring innovation, or just enable some firms to profit? So far, the evidence does not show that disclosure of inventions in the patent process or stronger patent protection spur innovation. There is no clear evidence that stronger patent rights encourage research. The effect of patents varies depending on the industry.


How Do Patents Affect Follow-on Innovation? Evidence from the Human Genome
Co-authored with Bhaven N. Sampat (NBER Working Paper #21666, October 2015)

Summary: Most innovation builds on earlier inventions. Some are concerned that patents on discoveries like human genes discourage later research relating to those genes. The evidence does not support the view that patenting of human genes either hinders or encourages follow-on research.


Intellectual Property Rights and Innovation: Evidence from the Human Genome
(American Economic Review, January 2019, Vol. 109, No. 1, pp. 203-236)

Summary: Intellectual property (IP) is intended to encourage innovation. For two years, Celera held exclusive IP rights to data about some human genes. During this time, other firms reduced research and development (R&D) related to these genes from 20-30%. These effects persisted for years after. IP rights could discourage cumulative innovation, which builds on earlier R&D. Keeping the costs of licensing IP low could encourage innovation.


See a full list of Professor Williams’ publications on her MIT faculty page.