Friday, June 21, 2013

Does (department) size matter?

Not really, according to this new research by Clement Bosquet and Pierre-Philippe Combes, who looked at the effects of various departmental characteristics on academic economists' research productivity in French universities. Concentrating on French data has the advantage that although initial affiliation relates to individual publications (as in most countries), this can be captured with an individual fixed effect, while subsequent moves in France are not driven by individual performance. Instead, the authors note, they are driven by personal or family motivations, in part due to the fact that academic salaries are essentially flat across universities, while the most frequent way of becoming a full professor is via a national contest that allocates winners to departments in a largely random way. Cool.

So what did they find?

Well, firstly, size doesn't matter, much. Instead, the biggest determinants of research productivity are the diversity of fields (within economics) that your colleagues work on - higher diversity being good for productivity - and the degree of heterogeneity of publication quality within the department - more heterogeneity being bad for productivity. So, a mixed bag of apples and oranges (in terms of research interests) is good, but a few rotten apples do appear to spoil the bunch!

Apart from size, it is also interesting to note that the authors found little or no effect of proximity to other economics departments, a finding in contrast with the conventional wisdom from economic geography, which tends to find large agglomeration effects in economic productivity (e.g. comparing urban and rural areas).

Other interesting findings the authors report:
  • Contrary to common intuition, more students per academic do not reduce publication performance.
  • Women, older academics, stars in the department and co-authors in foreign institutions all have a positive externality impact on each academic's individual outcome.
So, when choosing your next career move, look for a department with a wide array of interests, and not just those with lengthy lists of faculty members.

"Oh I do like to be beside the seaside ... "

New research from my colleague Susana Mourato, and George MacKerron, shows that people are happiest in marine and coastal environments, and more generally when experiencing the great outdoors. No great surprise there, perhaps, but this is a pretty novel attempt at quantifying the effects. The study is the first to use a tailor-made smartphone app to record individuals' wellbeing in different environments, and is based on over a million observations, from 22,000 individuals. Results are interesting in and of themselves, but the method also has great potential as a new means of estimating the intrinsic value of the natural environment. Could be useful, for example, in evaluating climate adaptation measures such as flood defenses. The paper is published in Global Environmental Change. More details here.