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Nobel Prize winner calls for harder research on soft skills

A child's cognitive and non-cognitive skills must be measured better so social scientists can completely understand keys to skill development that directly prepare people for school and careers.

Both cognitive and non-cognitive skills — the latter described as "soft skills" such as motivation, self-esteem and perseverance — determine many life outcomes, including education, health and crime.

That was a key message from Nobel Prize winner James Heckman, keynote speaker for "The Long Run Impact of Early Life Events II" — a two-day conference on the health effects of early life events on later life outcomes.

"We know it's important but most social policy doesn't really build it in. We're starting to understand; chipping away at least."

In his March 12 presentation "The Economics and Psychology of Inequality and Human Development," a paper he co-authored with Flavio Cunha, University of Pennsylvania, Heckman said, "If social scientists can make the link (between cognitive and non-cognitive) clear, we open a treasure chest of empirical findings in psychology of use to economists."

Heckman's work has been devoted to the development of a scientific basis for economic policy evaluation. In the early 1990s, his research on the outcomes of people who obtain the GED certificate questioned the benefits of the degree, spurring debate.

"Nothing here says you shouldn't do job training," Heckman said. But he added that further study of how people learn could lead to more careful and effective targeting of such training.

Heckman was an economic advisor to President Barack Obama during his election campaign. "It's not class warfare; it's about a future-oriented society," Heckman said, in a quote posted on Obama's Web site. Following his keynote address, Heckman said of Obama's economic initiatives, "They're a positive move in the right direction."

The conference, held in the Michigan Union, featured more than 60 national and international economists, social epidemiologists and developmental psychologists who presented their findings and received feedback about future research.

Topics included childhood exposure to the food stamp program, birth cohort and the black-white achievement gap, and long-run impacts of early childhood poverty based on Norwegian registry data.

"This gathering is intended to accelerate the understanding and to bridge some of the gaps between various disciplines," said Bob Schoeni, a research professor at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy and Institute for Social Research, and event coordinator. "The findings could also lead to new policies to improve outcomes for adults later in life."

U-M hosted the first early life conference, which focused on pre- and post-natal influences on adult outcomes, in December 2007.

This conference was sponsored by the National Poverty Center at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, the Center for Human Potential and Public Policy at the University of Chicago's Harris School of Public Policy Studies, and the Panel Study of Income Dynamics through a grant from the National Institute on Aging.

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