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PhD student wins inaugural Amartya Sen Prize

Photo of Hamish RussellHamish Russell never expected that his research on tax avoidance would lead to financial gain in the form of the inaugural Amartya Sen Prize, named for the Nobel laureate renowned for his work in welfare economics.

The competition, administered jointly by Yale University, Academics Stand Against Poverty and Global Financial Integrity, asked entrants to write an original essay about illegal financial flows: money transferred across international boundaries in ways that avoid laws (e.g., drug trafficking).

Russell, 22, a first-year PhD student in philosophy at U of T, and Gillian Brock, his undergraduate advisor and co-author from the University of Auckland, shared the prize with Max Everest-Phillips of the United Nations Development Program’s Global Centre for Public Service Excellence. Russell and Brock authored an essay about tax avoidance and the responsibilities of tax professionals.

“Tax avoidance has received a lot of attention in the past few years,” Russell said. “We looked at the role of accountants, law firms and financial advisors who have expertise setting up large-scale offshore shelter networks.”

He and Brock contend that “tax professionals are connected to tax avoidance in three important ways: causally contributing to high levels of abusive avoidance; benefiting in the form of fees for their services; and possessing the capacity to help combat the problem.” They argue that these firms have a moral responsibility to advise clients against investment practices that are unlikely to hold up in court and to help governments identify improper practices.

“Professionals in these industries have genuine and strong responsibilities, as opposed to saying, ‘we’re just another industry and we’re doing our jobs,” Russell said.

The winning paper was based on some research the pair are conducting on institutional corruption in taxation, and Russell said it was “pretty unexpected” to walk away with the prize. Even more surprising was the opportunity to have dinner with Sen himself.

“He is very funny, but it was very surreal in a way,” Russell said. “Here is a man who changed development policy. He wrote a lot of things and had people listen.”

It’s an outcome Russell would like to emulate, but he is still considering the focus for his thesis research. He is studying ethics and political philosophy, and he finds climate change an engaging topic, but as a first-year graduate student, he is still exploring his options.

“It’s very hard to remember that Hamish Russell is a first-year PhD student,” said Jennifer Nagel, director of U of T’s graduate program in philosophy. “His work shows truly remarkable depth and sophistication, and bravely tackles a series of difficult topics in ethics and the nature of rationality.

“We’re delighted to see him winning international acclaim for the paper that he co-authored with Gillian Brock, and we expect his research to continue in the spotlight during his graduate years here.”