Nobel laureate Professor Eric S. Maskin has been cooperating with HSE University since 2010. He serves as the chairman of the International Advisory Committee and is also Chief Research Fellow at the International Centre of Decision Choice and Analysis. HSE News Service has talked to Professor Maskin about his path in academia, his life motto, working with HSE, and other questions.
— How did you feel at the beginning of your career? How was it to be a young talented person who had to prove his talents to himself and the rest of the world? Who helped you and in what way? What were the disappointments?
— I was very lucky that early in my career (at the age of 26) I made a discovery that attracted a lot of attention (30 years later, this was the discovery that the Nobel committee emphasized most in their description of my work). So I didn’t have to suffer through a lot of the uncertainty that most young researches face about whether they will do something important.
I was helped enormously by two mentors—first, my PhD advisor, Kenneth Arrow, who first attracted me to economics (from mathematics); second, Frank Hahn, whom I got to know when I did a postdoc at Cambridge University. Although I was very fortunate to make a big discovery early on, I had many research failures too. In fact, for every research success throughout my career, I’ve had multiple failures.
— What people influenced you and your career and in what way?
— I already mentioned my mentors, Kenneth Arrow and Frank Hahn. But I also must mention my friends and long-time collaborators Partha Dasgupta, Mathias Dewatripont, Drew Fudenberg. Research is more fun—and also more productive—when you’re doing it with a superb co-author.
— You've met a tremendous number of talented researchers. Are there any common features typical for them?
— I think that curiosity and persistence are the two most important qualities for research. Persistence is needed because, if you’re like me, most of the time you will come against a dead-end, and so if you’re ever going to succeed you have to keep trying. And satisfying your curiosity is the motivation that makes all that persistence worthwhile
— What would be your advice to young people today?
— To young people considering a career in research, I’d encourage them by noting that such a career is among the freest they could possibly have. In most jobs, you have to follow your boss’s agenda. But in research, you get to ask and answer your own questions—what could be better than that? Of course, researchers need to pay attention to what is going on in their field if they want to make a contribution. But I’d urge a young person getting started not to worry to much about what other people are doing—she should choose the questions that most interest HER.
— Do you have any kind of a life motto or a slogan which you follow?
— I’m not sure that I have a motto, but as much as I can, I try not to take on projects that aren’t genuinely fun. Life is too short to spend a lot of time not having fun.
— What is your favorite part in your work?
— My favorite part of research is when, after weeks or months of trying to find my way toward the answer to a problem, I suddenly have a flash of insight and the pieces come together. Of course, the insight would be impossible without all the struggle beforehand.
— How is cooperation with HSE going, especially this strange year?
— I have been on the HSE’s International Advisory Committee since 2010 and have enjoyed the experience enormously. One of the great pleasures has been to see how far the HSE has come in such a comparatively brief time. For example, in many fields, HSE has advanced many places in international rankings (although such rankings are a highly imperfect measure of progress). This year, of course, we haven’t been able to meet in Moscow. But we’ve had several useful Zoom meetings and are planning another one for next month
Eric S. Maskin is Adams University Professor at Harvard University. In 2007 he was awarded Nobel Prize in Economics together with Leonid Hurwicz and Roger Myerson for having laid the foundations of mechanism design theory. Professor Maskin is a member of the US National Academy of Sciences.