Sigbert Prais, 1928-2014

An economist who specialised in looking at the causes of low productivity in the UK has died

April 24, 2014

Sigbert Prais was born in Frankfurt am Main on 19 December 1928. In 1934, his mother brought him and his brother to Birmingham to join their father, who had gone on ahead after realising the dangers the Jews faced in Central Europe.

The father had already set up a business manufacturing metal frames and ornaments for women’s handbags, so the young Sigbert grew up in a milieu where there was much discussion about the difference between British workmanship and industrial standards and those recalled from Germany. Such a comparative perspective was to prove central to his later career as an economist.

Although Professor Prais studied commerce at the University of Birmingham, he did not immediately join the family business but spent the years 1950 to 1957 as a lecturer in the University of Cambridge’s newly formed department of applied economics. Here he helped to produce the first mathematical models of the influence of socio-demographic variables on household consumption, as described in The Analysis of Family Budgets (with Hendrik Houthakker, 1955).

While still at Cambridge, Professor Prais spent time as a postdoctoral fellow at the Cowles Commission on Economics, University of Chicago (1953-54), where he worked on econometrics and regression analysis. His contribution to the field was recognised in the Prais-Winsten regression method, found as a command in the widely used Stata statistical software package.

After returning to England, Professor Prais began his long involvement with the independent National Institute of Economic and Social Research in London, which continued until his late seventies, although he spent most of the 1960s as the finance director of the family business and also served as visiting professor of economics at City University (1975-84). Much of his work, which drew on both deep socio-historical understanding and high-level mathematics, focused on the decline in British productivity.

Crucial to his thinking was the importance of training. In Production, Education and Training: An International Perspective (1995), for example, Professor Prais compared the qualifications attained by the labour force in the UK, Germany, France and the Netherlands. He also led a campaign to raise standards of mathematics education. A successful pilot programme to introduce Swiss-style teaching methods in the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham went on to influence the curriculum across the UK.

Professor Prais died of colon cancer on 22 February and is survived by his wife Vivien and their two daughters, as well as by a son and a daughter from a previous marriage.

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