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Ronald D. Lee – 2016 Laureate 

The IUSSP Laureate award ceremony for Ron Lee took place at the 2016
PAA Annual Meeting in Washington DC, on 30 March 2016.


Symposium on Ronald Lee's Contributions to Demography 

Chair: Jacques Vallin, Institut national d’études démographiques


Ron Lee was elected by the IUSSP Council to be the 2016 IUSSP Laureate in recognition of his outstanding contributions to the advancement of population sciences and distinguished service rendered to the IUSSP. Ron Lee is honored for the breadth of his research which includes important contributions to formal demography and theory including demographic forecasting, economic demography, evolutionary biodemography, historical demography, and intergenerational transfers. He has numerous highly cited publications and has been honored with a number of prestigious awards.  He has chaired more than 50 dissertations and many of his students have gone on to become highly regarded demographers.  Ron Lee has been an active member of the IUSSP since 1975 serving on its Council (1998 – 2001), participating in the organization of the 21st IUSSP International Population Conference in New Delhi, chairing an IUSSP Scientific Committee on the Economic Consequences of Alternative Demographic Patterns that organized several seminars and conferences and produced two volumes in the IUSSP International Studies in Demography series with Oxford University Press.


For more details on Ron Lee's accomplishments and contributions to the population field please read the letter of nomination below.



Nomination letter for Ron Lee:


Ronald D. Lee’s contributions to population science are remarkable for their breadth and for their depth.


A first-rate formalist as well as a great theorist, Lee is known for his nuanced sense of how to draw sophisticated inferences from scant or imperfect data. His work is highly interdisciplinary and spans much of the contemporary arc of population research, including contributions to formal demography, economic demography, evolutionary biodemography, historical demography, demographic forecasting, and intergenerational transfers. His publications have been cited 12,700 times, with an h‐index of 61 and i10-index of 155. He is particularly well known for his research on demographic forecasting, intergenerational transfers, demographic feedback and evolutionary life history theory.


Demographic forecasting

Population forecasts or projections are essential for many kinds of planning, including health care, environmental and climate change policy, pensions, the macroeconomy, education, and business. These projections or forecasts are prepared by demographers in government agencies or census bureaus around the world and in international agencies such as the United Nations. Demographers have a rich tradition of research and practice in this area, but Lee’s research improved on existing methods by addressing several problems: 1) mortality projections had tended to be systematically below the actual progress of life expectancy in subsequent decades; 2) fertility projections tended to be unduly tied to the most recent observed values; 3) scenario methods, High, Medium and Low, were used to indicate uncertainty, but there was no way to assign probability to these outcomes, which were in fact unavoidably internally inconsistent.


Lee and Carter (1992) combined mathematical demographic modeling with statistical time series analysis to develop a new method for forecasting mortality and life expectancy with probability intervals and improved forecasting accuracy. This method is now used widely by demographers and agencies around the world, and the article has been cited more than 1700 times. Subsequent articles by Lee and collaborators have tested it retrospectively (Lee and Miller, 2001) and extended the approach to take advantage of commonalities in groups of populations such as OECD countries, males and females, or provinces within a country (Li and Lee, 2005).


Lee developed a related method for fertility forecasts (Lee, 1993). He then developed probabilistic forecasting methods for a population as a whole and its age structure (Lee and Tuljapurkar, 1994). The next step was to develop stochastic forecasting methods for Social Security finances and for government budgets in general, as summarized in Lee (2004). Lee and collaborators taught classes in Washington DC for analysts in federal agencies with Social Security funding, and related methods were subsequently used in projections by CBO and continue to be used in the annual Trustees Report of the Social Security Administration.


Intergenerational transfers

Young people and the elderly consume much more than they produce, whereas people in the intermediate ages produce more than they consume and, in one way or another, reallocate the surplus to the young and old to enable their consumption. This reallocation takes place in part through the family as parents raise children, and grandparents may be either net givers or net receivers of transfers; in part through the public sector in the forms of public education, health care, pensions, long‐term care, social assistance and similar ways; and in part through the market as individuals accumulate assets over their lifetimes and use these to fund their consumption in old age.  The mechanisms and mixes vary from country to country and region to region, as do age patterns of labor income and consumption.


Lee (1994) developed a formal mathematical framework for showing the accounting identities relating the various parts of these transfers, and developed methods for estimating the various flows of resources across age using existing surveys and administrative data. With Andy Mason, Lee received a NIA grant to apply these methods internationally, and the resulting project has grown to include over 50 countries. These new data and methods have been used to study the consequences of population aging for the macroeconomy and the consequences of fertility decline over the demographic transition for investments in the human capital of children, asset accumulation, and economic development (Lee and Mason, 2011). The United Nations (2013) has published a manual on how to construct these age accounts, and the ongoing work has been used for many purposes and by many international agencies.


Demographic feedback

At the core of macrodemographic theory from Malthus onward have been concepts of demographic feedback.  Lee has taken the lead in putting these concepts into a modern, quantitative form and bringing empirical evidence to bear on them.   Working with the long historical series of aggregate data for England and Wales assembled by Wrigley and Schofield, he measured the strength of feedbacks from short-term fluctuations in real wages to short-term fluctuations in birth rates and death rates (e.g. Lee, 1981), giving rise to a whole new emphasis in historical demography. In the course of this work, he invented the technique of inverse projection (Lee, 1985), using single-parameter families of model life tables and model fertility schedules to infer vital rates and age distributions from aggregate historical   counts of births and deaths. In Lee (1974) (“The Echo, the Boom and the Bust”) and in Lee and Wachter (1989), he defined families of age-specific, non-linear feedback models to generalize the renewal equation, deepening the understanding of mid-twentieth century fertility swings. With broader sweep, he placed processes that maintain equilibrium levels or growth rates in human populations, so-called “homeostatic processes”, into the context of biological feedback mechanisms in his 1987 address as President of the Population Association of America, entitled “Population dynamics of humans and other animals”.


Evolutionary life history

Lee's interest in commonalities between humans and other species has also enriched the new field of biodemography. In social species, opportunities for sharing of food and resources within groups and across generations alter the costs and benefits of the tradeoffs between investments in growth, maintenance, repair, and reproduction that individuals make across the life course. By introducing the kinds of ideas developed in the National Transfer Accounts of Lee and Mason (2011) into formalized life history theory, Lee has generated a wide set of provocative insights into age-specific trajectories of fertility, mortality, age at sexual maturity, menopause, social food sharing, and sexual dimorphism, for example in Chu and Lee (2013) and Lee (2014). Carrying forward the tradition of Peter Laslett’s “A Fresh Map of Life”, Lee and Goldstein (2003) developed new ways of thinking about contemporary changes in the sequence and duration of stages of life and aging, informed by a biological perspective.



The importance of Lee’s contributions is reflected in the many awards he has received, and his election to distinguished scientific organizations. He is the winner of the Mindel C. Sheps Award for outstanding research in mathematical demography and the Irene Taeuber Award for outstanding achievement in demographic research.  He was awarded Honorary Doctorate, honoris causa, Lund University in 2004. He is an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society. He is a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy. He is a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) and a Research Fellow of the Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA). He was the recipient of National Institute on Aging MERIT awards continuously from 1994 to 2013.



Lee has taught population at the graduate and undergraduate level for over four decades, at the University of Michigan in the 1970s and at the University of California at Berkeley since 1979. Thousands of undergraduates have taken his course on the economics of population, and his graduate population economics course has been a core part of the Masters and PhD curriculum at the University of California at Berkeley. He has chaired around 50 dissertations and served on many more dissertation committees. Among the students whose dissertations he chaired are Andrew Foster, David Lam, Hans Peter Kohler, Mark Montgomery, Andrew Mason, Avi Ebenstein, Daniel Levitis, Magali Barbieri, Barbara Devaney, Barney Cohen, Jorge Bravo, Helge Brunborg, Beatrice Urdinola, and Bernardo Quieroz.


Public service

On innumerable occasions, Lee has lectured at specialized training programs, given guest lectures, participated in panels, offered his views to the media, and contributed deep insights to both neophyte and experienced scholars at venues around the world.


Lee has an exemplary record of service to the profession and to the community. He served as president of the Population Association of America; co-chair, National Academy of Science Working Group on Population and Economic Development (1983-86); chair, NIH Study Section on Social Sciences and Population (1987-1989); chair, National Academy of Sciences Committee on Population (1993-1997); chair, NIA Behavioral and Sociology of Aging Review Subcommittee (1996-1998); member, National Advisory Council on Aging (2002-2006); and member, National Advisory Child Health and Human Development Council (2006-2010).   Currently he is co-chair, National Academy of Sciences Panel on the long-run Macroeconomic Consequences of Population Aging and co-Director of the National Transfer Accounts network, in which research teams from over 50 countries participate.


Long-run IUSSP member

Throughout his career, Ronald Lee has been an active member of the IUSSP, having become a member in 1975.  From 1981 to 1986, he chaired an IUSSP Scientific Committee on the Economic Consequences of Alternative Demographic Patterns. In that capacity, he was the principal organizer of an international seminar on the Economic Consequences of Changing Population Composition in Developed Countries, held in Laxenburg, Austria in 1983, and then of an IUSSP conference on Population, Food and Rural Development, held in Delhi, India in 1984. For both meetings, Lee served as editor of collected volumes that brought together the best outputs of both events in successive IUSSP publications: Economics of Changing Age Distributions in Developed Countries (Oxford University Press, 1988, with Brian Arthur, Allen C. Kelley, and Gerry Rodgers), and Population, Food and Rural Development (Oxford University Press, 1988, with Brian Arthur, Allen C. Kelley, Gerry Rodgers and T.N. Srinivasan).


In addition to these two prominent contributions to IUSSP’s scientific activities, Lee presented consistently important and high-quality papers at numerous IUSSP events, including its general conferences. He also actively participated in the preparation of the 21st IUSSP International Population Conference, held in New Delhi in 1989, as a member of its International Organizing Committee. Finally, in 1997, he was elected as a member of the IUSSP Council, serving from 1998 to 2001 under the presidency of Jack Caldwell. He did so very actively, through both his valuable ideas and personal service, making major contributions to the success of the IUSSP and bringing lasting benefits to the global community of population studies.