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Taking another look at the data

München, 04/14/2016

Economist Amelie Wuppermann quantifies the practical effects of political measures, such as the impact of changes in educational policies on pupils. Now she is one of five female academics at LMU to win the Therese von Bayern Prize.

Foto: Kenishirotie /

When Amelie Wuppermann, Junior Professor of Microeconometrics in the Faculty of Economics at LMU, picks up a newspaper, she focuses not so much on current events as on their possible consequences. Her particular interest lies in studying how novel political, social and economic developments affect people’s lives. One recent story that caught her eye was an article in the German news magazine Der Spiegel, which prompted her to ask why the frequency of diagnosis of attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in German schoolchildren should vary depending on the region considered. In collaboration with Hannes Schwandt at the University of Zürich and researchers at the German Atlas of Healthcare Provision (Versorgungsatlas), she set out to answer this question. The Atlas provides a database, compiled and maintained by the Central Institute for Ambulatory Healthcare, which contains details of all diagnoses and prescriptions issued by members of the National Association of Statutory Health Insurance Physicians and paid for by the German Social Health Insurance system. When the researchers analyzed these data, they discovered a previously unnoticed pattern, which generated a great deal of media attention: They found a clear correlation between the probability that a child is diagnosed with ADHD and his or her date of birth. Children who were born just before a school entry cutoff date – and thus likely belonged to the youngest in their class – were significantly more likely to be diagnosed with the disorder than children born just after the cutoff.

The ADHD study is a typical example of Amelie Wuppermann’s approach to research, which focuses on answering practical, down-to-earth questions by empirical means. To do so, she takes advantage of “quasi experiments” – real-life situations thrown up by, among other things, political reforms. Such measures result in specific differences between otherwise similar groups, allowing researchers to disentangle the impact of these differences from those of other factors. In the case of the ADHD study the crucial variable was the birthday cutoff of school enrolment, which differs between the German Länder.

“The combination of empirical data with quasi experiments thus provides us with an opportunity to identify relationships between cause and effect,” says Amelie Wuppermann. However, the nature of the data concerned also determines the sorts of questions that can be posed. “In every new study, one has to consider very carefully precisely what sorts of conclusions can be drawn from the information available. And very often the relationships uncovered cannot be conclusively attributed to a single explanatory factor. The ADHD data, for instance, do not in themselves tell us why the younger kids in a class are more likely to receive the diagnosis. Wuppermann and her colleagues believe that the reason for the association is that these children are being – inappropriately – compared with older classmates who are more relaxed and attentive simply because they are a little older. “We therefore conclude that school enrolment policies in Germany are facilitating the misdiagnosis of attentional deficits in children.” Whether or not the results of the study – and its reception in the media – have had any influence on rates of ADHD diagnosis in the meantime is a question that the researchers will ask in a forthcoming project.

The LMU’s Therese von Bayern Foundation is dedicated to the promotion of young female academics at the University. In recognition of their outstanding research achievements and their contributions as role models for other women, the Foundation has now selected Amelie Wuppermann and four of her colleagues to receive the Therese von Bayern Prize. The Prizes will be formally presented to the winners on April 14th.

wuppermann_130_webAmelie Wuppermann (b.1982) studied Economics in Göttingen and Munich. As a member of the DFG-funded Graduate School in Markets, Institutions, and the Scope of Government, she obtained her doctorate (summa cum laude) for research done at LMU and the RAND Corporation, a well-known American think-tank. She subsequently did a postdoc at the Chair of Statistics and Econometrics at Mainz University, before being appointed as Junior Professor of Microeconometrics in the Faculty of Economics at LMU in the Winter Term of 2012. In the same year she became a member of LMU‘s “Mentoring excellence” program. During the years 2013-2015, with financial support from the LMUexcellent Junior Research Fund, and in collaboration with Sebastian Bauhoff of the Center for Global Development, she carried out a project on “Determinants of Health Plan Choice in the German Social Health Insurance”. In that study, she demonstrated that the greater the number of options offered by health insurers, the more difficult it becomes for customers to choose the most appropriate scheme for their individual needs. “In other words, consumers would be better served and the quality of healthcare could be improved if the range of options was reduced and simplified,” she says. Her analysis of the State-supported health insurance scheme introduced by US President Barack Obama led her to an analogous verdict. She found that the lower-income groups that Obamacare is meant to help do not have the knowledge required to make the best use of the new system – a conclusion which, needless to say, made headlines in the American media.

Wuppermann’s primary research interests lie in the areas of education and child health, and the economics of healthcare and health insurance. In another study, she asked how differences in teaching methods affect educational outcomes in schools in the US, based on a comparative analysis of the results of the standardized international performance test TIMSS (Trends in Mathematics and Science Study). “Pupils taught by teachers who stood in front of the class do better on the standardized tests, which suggests that traditional teaching methods are not so bad after all,” she says, before going on to point to a second possible interpretation of her results – perhaps the best teachers prefer to teach using lecture style. At all events, the German newspaper FAZ am Sonntag headlined the story with the assertion: “Lecture style teaching makes pupils smarter”.

Amelie Wuppermann views the award of the Therese von Bayern Prize as a gesture of encouragement. “An award such as this is both an endorsement and a stimulus,” she says. In selecting its awardees, the Therese von Bayern Foundation not only takes academic excellence into account, but also how the candidates manage to reconcile the often conflicting demands of career and family. Amelie Wuppermann gave birth to her first child last summer and is currently on parental leave. “Researchers have a large degree of flexibility in where and when they work, which is a great advantage in comparison with many other professions,” she says. “But of course, combining a full-time university career with child-rearing is still a terrific challenge. The fact that LMU offers outstanding crèches and day-care facilities is a huge help, because this kind of infrastructure is tremendously important for academics with young families nowadays.” Wuppermann is also a student advisor for the Studienstiftung des deutschen Volkes and supervises her own doctoral candidates. She encourages students and early-stage researchers to look out for a subject that fascinates them and never to lose heart. “An academic career is something well worth striving for, every single day.”

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