The Nils Klim Interview 2017: Katrine Vellesen Løken

The Norwegian economist Katrine Vellesen Løken was awarded the Nils Klim Prize in 2017 for her research on different aspects of the Nordic welfare states, such as parental leave schemes and the criminal system. In this interview, the young professor shares reflections about her research, the field of economics and the importance of good data.

This is a shortened version of the interview, conducted in March of  2017. The full version is available in audio here:

Katrine Vellesen Løken received her doctoral degree from the University of Bergen in 2010, and later became a professor of Economics, at the young age of 31. We began the interview by asking what inspired her to pursue an Academic career, and what it was that initially made her drawn to economics.

– Like many young people, I had no idea what I wanted to be when I finished High School. But I enjoyed the combination of math and social science, and was told that Economics is a good combination of those two fields, so I tried that and ended up doing a bachelor in Economics, and then later also a master’s degree and a PhD in the same field.

At a young age, you have published articles in some of the most prestigious journals in your field. Is there a recipe for your success?

– It is a bit of a cliché, but I don’t think there’s any good recipes except hard work. It’s hard work to do a PhD, and it’s hard work after you finish your PhD, if you want to have an academic career. That said, you probably also need quite a bit of luck. You need to be working on a topic that is popular in that time in publications, and you must be at the forefront in your field. Also, a good supervisor and an international network is extremely important. You cannot have an academic career on your own.

Are there any particular aspects of your research that inspire you? Do you have a desire to affect change through your work?

 – I’m definitely inspired by social policy in general, and to see how inequality in society looks like. I’m interested in how we can understand and describe the structures of society in different countries and how we can shape policies that can help everyone to get better possibilities in life. I don’t think that one researcher alone can find solutions to all challenges, but as a researcher you can be an important piece of the puzzle to bring about change.


You have studied the impact of state policies on individual behavior in various contexts, and topics related to key issues of the Nordic welfare states. Could you tell me about the work you did on family policy studies as part of your doctoral thesis?

 – My doctoral thesis covered several different topics, but one of the main papers I did was about the effect of maternity leave on children’s outcomes later in life, both in education and in the labour market. The main question was whether it is more beneficial for children if the mother spend more time at home within the first year.

 – We found a positive effect both with regards to education and income for the children if they had their mothers at home during the first six months of their life. However, in a follow up study that I did later on with some colleagues we found no difference after the first six months. It seems that the mother is particularly important in the beginning, but that after about six months there’s little difference compared to other high quality caretakers, such as the father or grandparents. Of course, there is a big difference if you don’t have a primary caretaker when you’re very young, but it doesn’t have to be the mother. These findings have been supported by a lot of research internationally too by now.

This sounds like findings that should have huge implications for social policies in many countries.

 – Yes, we have tried to push this research, for example in the US. In most European countries, you have maternity policies that supports mothers for the first four to six months. This is the average in the EU, but for example in the US you don’t have any universal policy for parental leave. They only have a few months unpaid leave, dependent on what type of job you have. It’s hard to get results because there are a lot of forces and policy interests that have opinions on this, but I think we are part of the process to bring about policy changes.

So some maternity leave is to some extent obviously hugely beneficial?

 – There are benefits, for sure, but there is also always an associated cost to having this types of programmes. There is a distortion cost in the sense that you have a tax everyone must contribute too, but it is only those who have children who benefit from it. And also you have an administrative cost. There is a distribution cost going from those who don’t have children to those who have children. And in that sense the distribution of family policies are not always towards the poor, that you would usually want to prioritize. 


You have also done research in criminology, and you are presently taking part in a long-term study on the economic implications of how we structure our criminal system:  "The Social Costs of Incarceration", the largest study of imprisonment and return to a normal life that has ever been conducted in Europe. Could you explain what this project is about? And what some of the key findings are?

 – Yes, so this was a research topic I got interested in when I was in San Diego. It is a collaboration with a colleague in San Diego and also Magne Mogstad, who is a Professor in Chicago, but has his PhD from the University of Oslo. We read about a project on the effect of incarceration on the criminal after he gets out of jail that was based on very poor data and could not really pinpoint the effect of incarceration from everything else. So then we got the idea to get more quality data from Norway to look into this question. It took us almost four years to get the access and data we needed, so the project only started last year. We have our first paper coming out soon, where we look at that exact question, about what is the effect of incarceration on the criminal when he gets out. And I say "he" because almost all of them are men.

And what are your key findings so far?

 – We found that if you are sent to prison you are less likely to commit more crime and more likely to return to the labour market, compared to if you get the alternative punishment of community service or probation, which are the two main alternatives.

Why is that, you believe?

 – We tried to look into that, and we found that this is typically the case for people who was unemployed before they committed the criminal offense and was incarcerated. Those who was previously unemployed are also more likely to be in a labour market program in prison, and thereby also more likely to be employed afterward. So, it was primarily the work training programs in prison that was the driving factor to get people out of crime.

How do we know if the correlation between prison sentences and low recidivism rates are due to successful education programmes or simply the preventive effect that incarceration presumably has, compared to less severe forms of punishment?

 – That is a hard question I think. Firstly, I don’t think what we find is the correlation between prison sentences and recidivism rates, because we are very carefully looking at the causal effect by comparing the exact same type of criminals doing the exact same type of crime. Some judges are more lenient than others, and since it’s random which judge you meet, then sometimes you get a prison sentence and sometimes you don’t, for the same type of crime. So in that sense, we look at the causal effect of incarceration. But when you try to look into the mechanism of whether it’s the educational programs or the preventive effect of prison, I don’t think we can fully separate those two. But we’re pretty sure that this discrepancy is driven by the effect of the employment programmes.

If rehabilitation programs in prison are successful, is it your opinion that more offenders should be incarcerated?

 – Well, no. I’ll try to elaborate: I think it is important to distinguish between the moral and the juridical reasons for prison. Our study is about how we can organize prisons in the best possible way to encourage that the incarcerated get back to society, instead of falling back into crime. On the other hand you have tough moral and normative questions concerning the lack of freedom, and for what types of crimes one can take away someone’s freedom. These are not questions we can find the answers to in our data.


It is well known that Norway and the other Nordics have very low recidivism rates compared to many other countries, like the US for instance, and there are vast differences of course. Is this a case to be made for the Scandinavian model, rather than the more severe and perhaps draconian American model?

 – We believe that at least. A prison that has a focus on rehabilitation can actually work. Little research has been able to look at this from a cost perspective. I think that we have one of the first papers within the subject area with our findings. There are some papers in the US looking into this, and if anything, they find the opposite effect. That prisons increase recidivism rates and increase unemployment. The system that they have in the US seems not to work very well, considering the outcome for the convicts afterwards. But this could also be an artefact of the labour market. In the sense that it is much more difficult for convicts to enter the labour market after being incarcerated in the US than in Norway.


I understand that you are often in contact with policy makers in order to highlight the necessity of a scientific basis for future welfare reforms. Would you say that you have been successful in making politicians listen to you?

 – I think that is difficult to answer, because politics is a lot about ideology and political preferences are key to what politicians believe in. Political parties tend to cherry-pick the research that fit their ideology. For example economists has been pushing arguments against the cash for care scheme since before it was introduced in 1986, with strong arguments against that type of policy because of the negative effects, especially on gender equality. But as the system works, politicians don’t have any obligation to listen, and that policy has now been in place for more than 20 years, so it can be difficult to get your research into the political debate.

How does the field of Economics contribute to our understanding of society in a way that other fields cannot? What methods and insights are central to your take on societal challenges?

 – I think that Economics have been on the forefront on methodology, and getting at methods that show the causal effect of policy. To understand the effect of policy you really have to look into methods that can separate the causal effect from everything else that happens in society. Since everything happens at the same time, it is a very hard task to do that. And that’s still ongoing in the sense that methodological contributions happen all the time. In this area economics have been parting with other social sciences over the last years. And many other fields are actually starting to use more the same type of methods that Economics now. 

Even though you are young, would you say that the field of social economics has changed in any significant way, during your career?

 – Yes, absolutely. The big change that is still ongoing is that economics has gone from being a theoretically oriented field towards much more empirical research. If you look at which papers are published in the leading journals these days, it is much more empirical work than theoretical work. This kind of empirical work is something the Nordics has been very successful in, since we have easy access to very good data here, compared to other countries. We can answer questions that are not possible to answer elsewhere. This has clearly spurred the Nordic countries’ research and made us much more successful over the last ten years than we have been before.

In recent years, after the financial crisis of 2008, there has been a great deal of controversy about the lack of theoretical and methodical pluralism in the field of economics, both in Norway and abroad. A common criticism is that economics in universities is narrow, uncritical and detached from the real world. What are your views in this question?

 – As an Economist, I very much welcome critical views. Critical views of any field is a good way to move forward. It is good that we have more debate about this. At the same time, economics is a huge field, and the critique that came after the financial crisis is very peculiar to the field of macroeconomics and finance. I’ve been mostly working with empirical data, applied economics and microeconomics, which I find is very much in front of social sciences about thinking about the real world, real world social issues, and questions about redistribution of resources, on trade and integration issues. So in that sense I think the critique is not hitting the mark, at least not for my specific field.


Are there any major welfare reforms or structural changes you would like to see in society over the next years?

 – We need to be careful, I think. Norway is a small country that is very dependent on the world, but we also have a fairly high standard of living and policies that seem to work pretty well both towards having good labour force participation, and good work-life balance. We definitely have possibilities to make some of our programs more sustainable, but these are more small adjustments than big policy changes.

Exciting work! Professor Løken, congratulations on being elected the 2017 Nils Klim Laureate.

 – Thank you very much! It’s an honour.