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Luxembourg National Research Fund

It is not only money that is distributed unequally



PEARL grantee Prof. Conchita D’Ambrosio has developed new methods to paint a detailed picture of social inequality.

It has always been true that some people are richer than others. Why is this the case? Some believe that everyone is rewarded according to their abilities and performance. While there is likely some truth to this statement, it is far from explaining the distribution of resources in modern society.

“The success or failure of a society depends on how economic inequality develops,” says economist Prof. Conchita D’Ambrosio, “because this has a direct influence on the wellbeing of its citizens.” D’Ambrosio was appointed professor at the University of Luxembourg in 2013 with the support of a PEARL grant from the FNR.

The aim of her research project was to propose a new way of looking at inequality.

“Usually, people only look at money and income differences,” D’Ambrosio says, “but there is much more to the concept of inequality: well-being, economic insecurity, chances in life, or the opportunity to participate in social life. All of these factors are unequally distributed in society. And they must be taken into account when describing the extent of inequality.”

While income differences are relatively easy to measure, other aspects of social inequality are more difficult to capture, for example economic insecurity. For her project within the PEARL programme, D’Ambrosio’s primary concern was therefore to identify information on individuals and the society in which they live that enable these phenomena to be measured, and then calculate them using large-scale survey data from around the world.

This required close collaboration with researchers from other disciplines, as D’Ambrosio relates: “When you ask people about their economic insecurity and their fears for the future, they talk about emotions. Therefore, to be able to measure these in a scientifically-valid way, I sought to work closely with psychologists and other social scientists.”

With her interdisciplinary team, and in cooperation with other researchers of worldwide renown, the Italian economist has developed methods to identify new measures that have not to date been used in inequality research and to incorporate them into empirical statistical analysis. This allowed D’Ambrosio to portray the complex reality of human life much more realistically than is possible with a purely monetary measure: for the first time in the context of social inequality in various countries, she was able to create an accurate representation of life situations, their development over time and people’s self-placement relative to others.

Inequality is a topic that can divide a society. The great danger that D’Ambrosio sees is that, in recent times, large proportions of the middle class have felt insecure and left behind. “This leads to shifts in the political structure and can encourage populist sentiment, for example,” the economist says. She therefore feels it is especially important to disseminate her research findings and to introduce them into political discussions.

To this end, D’Ambrosio is using the classic channels of media communication. In 2013, she also established an event that is very popular among political and economic decision-makers when she launched the lecture series “Inequality and…?”. These lectures attract world-leading researchers in the field of inequality, as well as politicians, including the Luxembourg Minister of Labour, Nicolas Schmit, who presented in 2018.

“In this way, the topic of inequality in all domains of life has continually made its way onto the political agenda,” D’Ambrosio is pleased to report. “This is of vital importance for our future because we cannot allow our society to break down as a result of inequality.”

For a number of reasons her current research interests have evolved in a direction she could not have taken had she not joined the University of Luxembourg. Her interests in measures of individual well-being always revolved around the attempt to capture individual sentiments and emotions. Working closely with Psychologists has helped her better understand what emotions are, and the role they play in individual behavior and outcomes. She has also met charismatic Geneticists and Epigeneticists who are interested in joint work on the construction of a comprehensive model of individual behavior.

Colleagues from Physics, Computer Science and Engineering, together with the hardware resources available in Luxembourg (High Performance Computing facilities), have allowed her the exploration of data from a different perspective.

The broad theme of her current and expected research in the next five years is the analysis of individuals over their life course, from conception to old age. She is interested in the study of the effects of socio-demographic events that occur to individuals (and her/his parents and peers) on individual behaviors and outcomes. She here plans to bring into the traditional approach of Economics insights from Biology and Psychology.

An example is her current research on ageing. The biological process of becoming older is reflected in molecular and cellular changes in our body. She looks at the most accurate indicator of aging, the “epigenetic clock”, based on biological changes such as the addition of molecules called methyl groups to various DNA locations. The epigenetic clock can tick faster or slower for different individuals, so that some people are indeed older or younger than they look. She asks how the socio‐economic environment and individual characteristics help determine this rapid or slow aging. The biological process of becoming older has been shown to be reversible: policy interventions can then help people to “age better” by slowing the aging of their body.

This success story originates from the FNR 2019 Annual Report

Dr Conchita D’Ambrosio, FNR PEARL Chair © University of Luxembourg