Welcome to the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis

The Harvard Center for Risk Analysis (HCRA) is a multidisciplinary group of faculty, research staff, students, and visiting scholars who work together to improve decisions about environmental health and other risks. We conduct state-of-the-art research, educate the next generation of leaders in risk analysis and related disciplines, and encourage public discourse about risk topics. To learn more about HCRA, please contact any member of our faculty or research staff below or click here to join our email list.

Benefit-Cost Analysis, Valuing Statistical Lives, and COVID-19

The COVID-19 crisis has focused unprecedented attention on the use of benefit-cost analysis and approaches for valuing mortality risk reductions, commonly referred to as the value per statistical life (VSL). The pace at which new studies are being completed is extraordinary as is the significant attention they are receiving in the media. These studies emphasize the difficult trade-off between saving lives and economic damages as well as the importance of systematically investigating policy impacts. At the same time, this attention has highlighted the need to more clearly communicate the implications of uncertainties in the VSL estimates. HCRA Director James K. Hammitt and Senior Research Scientist Lisa A. Robinson have each written extensively on estimating the VSL applicable to different contexts. Their recent work on COVID-19 includes papers that explore the conceptual framework and empirical evidence and the impact of alternative approaches for adjusting for age. In addition, both the Society for Risk Analysis and the Society for Benefit-Cost Analysis have posted essays that summarize related issues.

Counting and Valuing “Premature Deaths”

In a recent article in Risk Analysis, “Premature Deaths, Statistical Lives, and Years of Life Lost: Identification, Quantification, and Valuation of Mortality Risks,” Dr. James K. Hammitt and co-authors identify and try to clear up some important misconceptions about mortality risk and economic valuation. The mortality effects of exposure to air pollution and other environmental hazards are often described by the estimated number of “premature deaths” and the economic value of a reduction in exposure as the number of “statistical lives saved” multiplied by the “value per statistical life.” These terms can be misleading because the number of deaths advanced by exposure (the “etiologic” fraction) cannot be determined from mortality data; it could be that everyone exposed to air pollution dies a little earlier than they otherwise would have, or that only a small fraction die much earlier than they would have. Total life years lost due to exposure can be estimated but cannot be disaggregated by age or cause of death. Economic valuation of a change in exposure-related mortality risk is not affected by inability to know the fraction of deaths that are etiologic, although information about how the risk is distributed in the population could affect its value.

For a summary of this research, see our May 2020 Risk in Perspective.


James K. Hammitt, Professor of Economics and Decision Sciences

Joel Schwartz, Professor of Environmental Epidemiology

Core Faculty and Affiliates

John Evans, Adjunct Professor of Environmental Health

Elsie Sunderland, Gordon McKay Professor of Environmental Chemistry

Lisa A. Robinson, Senior Research Scientist

Katherine von Stackelberg, Research Scientist

Jonathan B. Wiener, Duke University

Visiting Scholars

Eva Tène, Toulouse School of Economics (2020)

Rebecca McDonald, University of Birmingham (2019)

Danae Arroyos-Calvera, University of Birmingham (2019)

Nathalie de Marcellis-Warin, Polytechnique Montreal (2015-2016)

Daniel Herrera, Toulouse School of Economics (2014)

Emmanuelle Lavaine, Toulouse School of Economics (2014)

Damian Tago, Toulouse School of Economics (2014)

Tuba Tuncel, Toulouse School of Economics (2014)