Much of current academic teaching and research has been critizied for its lack of relevance, that is, of immediate practical impact. ... The trouble is caused, however, not by an inadequate selection of targets, but rather by our inability to hit squarely on them, ... by the palpable inadequacy of the scientific means with which they try to solve them. ... The weak and all too slowly growing empirical foundations clearly cannot support the proliferating superstructure of pure, or should I say, speculative economic theory.... By the time it comes to interpretations of the substantive conclusions, the assumptions on which the model has been based are easily forgotten. But it is precisely the empirical validity of these assumptions on which the usefulness of the entire exercise depends. ... A natural Darwinian feedback operating through selection of academic personnel contributes greatly to the perpetuation of this state of affairs.
Wassily Leontief was born on August 5, 1905, in Munich, Germany, the son of Wassily W. Leontief (professor of Economics) and Zlata (German spelling Slata; later Evgenia) Leontief (née Becker). W. Leontief, Sr., belonged to a family of old-believer merchants living in St. Petersburg since 1741. Genya Becker belonged to a wealthy Jewish family from Odessa. At 15 in 1921, Wassily, Jr., entered University of Leningrad in present-day St. Petersburg. He earned his Learned Economist degree (equivalent to Master of Arts) in 1924 at the age of 19.
Leontief sided with campaigners for academic autonomy, freedom of speech and in support of Pitirim Sorokin. As a consequence, he was detained several times by the Cheka. In 1925, he was allowed to leave the USSR, mostly because the Cheka believed that he was mortally ill with a sarcoma, a diagnosis that later proved false. He continued his studies at the University of Berlin and, in 1928 earned a Ph.D. degree in economics under the direction of Werner Sombart, writing his dissertation on The Economy as Circular Flow (original German title: Die Wirtschaft als Kreislauf).
From 1927 to 1930, he worked at the Institute for the World Economy of the University of Kiel. There he researched the derivation of statistical demand and supply curves. In 1929, he traveled to China to assist its ministry of railroads as an advisor.
In 1931, he went to the United States and was employed by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Leontief set up the Harvard Economic Research Project in 1948 and remained its Director until 1973. Starting in 1965, he chaired the Harvard Society of Fellows.
In 1949, Leontief used an early computer at Harvard and data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to divide the U.S. economy into 500 sectors. Leontief modeled each sector with a linear equation based on the data and used the computer, the Harvard Mark II, to solve the system, one of the first significant uses of computers for mathematical modeling, along with George W. Snedecor's usage of the Atanasoff–Berry computer.
In 1975, Leontief joined New York University and founded and directed the Institute for Economic Analysis. He taught graduate and undergraduate classes.
Leontief died in New York City on Friday, February 5, 1999 at the age of 93. His wife died in 2005.
Leontief earned the Nobel Prize in economics for his work on input-output tables. Input-output tables analyze the process by which inputs from one industry produce outputs for consumption or for inputs for another industry. With the input-output table, one can estimate the change in demand for inputs resulting from a change in production of the final good. The analysis assumes that input proportions are fixed; thus the use of input-output analysis is limited to rough approximations rather than prediction. Input-output was novel and inspired large-scale empirical work; in 2010 its iterative method was recognized as an early intellectual precursor to Google's PageRank.