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Editorial: A memorable class project

Thomas Herndon may well be the most interviewed economics student in the world this month. Why? One of the University of Massachusetts graduate student’s class projects is making waves around the globe.

His costs were low — but benefits to his reputation are mounting.

For a class on Applied Econometrics, Herndon, a 28-year-old from Austin, Texas, set out to fact-check an influential study on the effect that public debt has on economic growth. The study, by two Harvard economists, had found that at a certain level, debt appeared to diminish growth. That in turn bolstered claims by conservatives such as U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s running mate last fall, that a national government should not seek to stimulate the economy with public spending based on borrowing.

Herndon got one of the authors to share her data and tested the math. Much to his surprise, he found mistakes. In a paper he co-wrote with two UMass professors — Michael Ash and Robert Pollin — Herndon found that taking on debt has a much more negligible impact on growth. The paper, available for download from the website of the university’s Political Economy Research Institute, made headlines around the world, including here in the Gazette.

The study won’t end the debate. But as Pollin noted, he now “rests his case” in his frequent argument to students that if they work hard, they can push boundaries in research. And get noticed.

A dino’s day in Amherst

A gem of a museum in the Pioneer Valley just got better. The well-preserved skeleton of a dinosaur that lived in North America approximately 150 million years ago has been donated to the Beneski Museum of Natural History at Amherst College. Dryosaurus altus, according to the curators at the museum, was an “agile and speedy vegan dinosaur roughly the height of a pony and the length of an American alligator.” The skeleton stands about 3½ feet tall and is 10 feet long. It will be only the second Dryosaurus altus to be in a free-standing, three-dimensional display in the world.

According to scientists, the critter moved on its hind legs and had teeth at the back of its jaw to pluck and chew plant matter quickly. It could run 40 mph. The dinosaur is a gift from John Middleton, Amherst class of 1977, and his wife, Leigh. It is an exhibit that will excite scientific researchers and well as the public.

Smaller than other dinosaurs on display, Dryosaurus is still a big new addition for the 55,800-square-foot museum that already hosts an impressive collection on the natural history of the Connecticut River Valley. The Beneski has 200,000 objects, including one of largest collections of dinosaur footprints.

The museum also showcases the work of 19th century geologist and Amherst College President Edward Hitchcock, who defined the origins of the Connecticut River Valley and the Holyoke Range and collected the first fossils that formed the basis for the museum.

Dryosaurus altus will be ready to receive company in May. It will bring new and return visitors and broaden public appreciation for the first-class natural history museum in our backyard.

For more about the Beneski and the other fine nearby museums visit www.museums10.org.

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