NIESR pays tribute to Professor Sig Prais 1928-2014

NIESR is very sad to learn that Professor Sig Prais passed away on Saturday 22nd February 2014. Professor Prais had a long and close relationship with NIESR lasting more than 50 years, joining us first in 1953 and then permanently seventeen years later. During his time with us he received many honours, awards and accolades: He was a member of Council of the Royal Economics Society from 1979-83, fellow of the British Academy in 1985;  He was awarded D.Litt by City University in 1989, and an Honorary Doctor of Science by Birmingham University in 2006, almost 60 years after completing his first degree from the University. His scholarly work is widely cited and has influenced research, policy and practice over many decades.

Born in Germany, he came to England as a refugee in 1933, aged five and speaking little English. His father was admitted on a three month visa renewable on condition that he would create employment in Birmingham. By the 1960s the firm was employing 500 people. After attending King Edward’s School,  Sig Prais studied Commerce at Birmingham University and then undertook research for a PhD at Cambridge University, awarded in 1953. His first job, in 1950, was at the Department of Applied Economics at Cambridge, under Sir Richard Stone, Nobel Laureate. After leaving Cambridge, he joined NIESR in 1953 where he worked on business concentration. He also held positions at the universities of Cambridge and Chicago, the UN Technical Assistance Organisation and the IMF before returning to NIESR in 1970 where he worked until well into his eighties.

Professor Prais was not only an academic: for most of the 1960s he worked as Director of the Prais family firm, Elbief Co, which made metal-framed handbags. This experience informed his future research on both theory and practice. In 1970, equipped with a strong interest in the firm as a focus of research, he was appointed Senior Research Fellow at NIESR. He remained at NIESR for the next forty years. Initially his focus was on productivity and industrial structure, moving to a closer analysis of the role of vocational training in productivity improvements in the 1980s. He became increasingly interested in education, particularly attainments in mathematics, and in the teaching of early years pupils. Throughout his career, his work has influenced not only theory, but policy and practice. He led numerous research projects at NIESR, benefiting many researchers with his knowledge and expertise.

A lesser known fact about Professor Prais was his role in challenging claims by electric light manufacturers about the optimal life of a bulb. In 1968 the Monopolies Commission was examining the claim of lighting manufacturers that the optimal economic life of a bulb was 1000 hours. Having detected an error in the mathematical calculations of manufacturers, Sig Prais maintained a lengthy campaign which included giving evidence to the House of Commons Committee on Science Technology. At the end of the campaign, ‘long life’ bulbs became far more readily available to UK consumers and are now standard. NIESR also benefited from his practical skills in adjusting our temperamental heating system.

Sig Prais was a valued colleague and friend to many researchers who have passed through NIESR’s doors over the last 60 years. Long after most researchers give up their endeavours, he continued to visit several times a week, to keep up with research findings, write papers and have lunch and tea with colleagues and friends. When illness prevented him from making his regular visits to NIESR, he was greatly missed. His office was left unoccupied for long after, both from hope that he might return but because we could not imagine NIESR without him. His energy, intelligence and commitment to policy-related research remains here, as part of our past and present. Our thoughts are with his wife and family. We thank them for their generosity in allowing him to share part of his life with us.