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BC Economists Co-Finalists for Edelman Prize

03/27/14

By Ed Hayward | Chronicle Staff

Published: Mar. 27, 2014

Two Boston College economists are part of a team of researchers among six finalist organizations competing for the 2014 Franz Edelman Prize, considered the world’s premier honor for the use of advanced analytics to solve significant business and humanitarian problems.

Professors Tayfun Sönmez and Utku Ünver, together with colleagues at Stanford University and MIT, have spent several years developing matching mechanisms to connect donors and recipients for paired kidney exchange. The team’s work has supported the Alliance for Paired Donation, which is developing a nationwide program to better serve more than 88,000 people waiting for kidney transplants. For Sönmez, being named a finalist is an honor, but he’s most proud of the impact the team’s work has had improving the health of individuals suffering from kidney disease and damage.

“It is truly gratifying to see that what initially started as theoretical research evolved into one of the main kidney transplantation modalities has been recognized as a finalist for the Edelman Prize,” Sönmez said. “But for me the ultimate recognition is witnessing the use of our ideas to help hundreds of renal patients every year.”

Sponsored by the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS), the Edelman Prize will be awarded Monday at a gala event during an INFORMS national conference held in Boston.

“As economists, we are really humbled with the fact that the main scientific community of operations research and management science recognized or work in this way,” said Ünver. “It is extremely rare for an economic theorist to make real impact on human lives. In this sense I feel blessed and this feeling makes me love my work even more.”

Sönmez and Ünver are economic theorists who apply their market and resource allocation theories to important problems in areas where the exchange of goods and services between parties is far more complex than conventional commercial transactions.

Their research has helped to create new models that improve the matching of students with public school assignments, multiple kidney transplant recipients with suitable donors, and tenants with housing units.

They have collaborated throughout the years with economist Alvin Roth of Stanford, who in 2012 shared the Nobel Prize for economics, for their work on market design. At the time, the Nobel reviewers specifically cited the depth of the collaboration between Sönmez, Ünver, Roth and other economists.

In 2004, Roth, Sönmez and Ünver developed a system that could arrange complicated, multiple-person kidney matches on a nationwide basis, greatly increasing the efficiency of exchange. The system overcame the constraints of finding perfect matches for simultaneous one-to-one kidney exchange by creating nationwide chains of donors and recipients. Roth and MIT economist Itai Ashlagi join Sönmez and Ünver to round out the Alliance for Paired Donation team nominees.

Professor of Economics and Department Chairman Donald Cox praised the work of Sönmez and Ünver for successfully applying the theoretical and computational tools of economic science to help solve a crucial health care problem.

“Tayfun and Utku are using their theories to save lives by improving the effectiveness of kidney exchange,” said Cox. “A common thread through all of their work is not just to come up with good ideas, but to put those ideas into action.”

The Alliance for Paired Donation nomination is matched against teams from Twitter and Stanford, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, The Energy Authority, Grady Memorial Hospital and Georgia Institute of Technology and NBN Company and Biarri.

Edelman Prize finalists have combined to contribute more than $200 billion in benefits to the economy and the public interest over the years, according to INFORMS. The prize is named in honor of Franz Edelman, a long-time RCA Corp. engineer and a pioneer in operations research and analysis.