Lower travel costs boost scientific collaboration

Here is a kind of gravity equation for science:

We develop a simple theoretical framework for thinking about how geographic frictions, and in particular travel costs, shape scientists’ collaboration decisions and the types of projects that are developed locally versus over distance. We then take advantage of a quasi-experiment – the introduction of new routes by a low-cost airline – to test the predictions of the theory. Results show that travel costs constitute an important friction to collaboration: after a low-cost airline enters, the number of collaborations increases by 50%, a result that is robust to multiple falsification tests and causal in nature. The reduction in geographic frictions is particularly beneficial for high quality scientists that are otherwise embedded in worse local environments. Consistent with the theory, lower travel costs also endogenously change the types of projects scientists engage in at different levels of distance. After the shock, we observe an increase in higher quality and novel projects, as well as projects that take advantage of complementary knowledge and skills between sub-fields, and that rely on specialized equipment. We test the generalizability of our findings from chemistry to a broader dataset of scientific publications, and to a different field where specialized equipment is less likely to be relevant, mathematics. Last, we discuss implications for the formation of collaborative R&D teams over distance.

That is from a new paper by Christian Catalini, Christian Fons-Rosen, and Patrick Gaulé.


Well I have always been keen to do some research on the Bahamas. Anyone know anyone at the University of the West Indies? Hell, I would accept Hawaii at a pinch.

I think the logical explanation of this is that academics aren't paid all that well and they are cheap. So they "collaborate" as a way of getting the tax payer to pay for their tickets. Anyone know how much scientific "collaboration" goes on in Vegas?

There is obviously a bundle to know about this. I consider you made certain good points in features also.

Sure, organizing your conference or symposium in an attractive location will make it more, uh, attractive to participate. In particular, there are some Las Vegas conferences that are just thinly veiled excuses to travel there. Everybody knows this, though, and having papers "published" in such conferences won't earn you much academic credibility.

But the interesting thing is here that a) collaborations result in better science, i.e. taxpayers get something back from travel funds, and b) academics are in fact frugal, so that when the prices are reduced, collaboration (and the positive results) increases.

I wonder how much border control unpleasantries hamper science. I generally try to avoid traveling to the US, both because of the longer flight (compared to other European countries), but also because invasive and vaguely threatening border control routines make me feel less safe. If this is a common sentiment, it probably harms scientific collaboration across both the Atlantic and the Pacific, and it would be interesting if the effect could be quantified.

Geographic frictions are especially acute in the U.S., as low-cost and convenient travel options become increasingly limited as the result of austerity. Anyone who travels in business will know what I mean, as airlines reduce the number of flights between small and medium-sized cities while increasing the price, highways become increasingly congested (as population increases and more travelers take to the road due to the absence of good alternatives), and high-speed rail doesn't even exist. Many of our tech hubs are located in small to medium-sized college communities, and getting there is both expensive and time-consuming. Much of tech is concentrated in Silicon Valley because of geographic frictions, resulting in extraordinarily high living costs (mainly rent) and congestion that serve as a deterrent to collaboration (because many can't or won't live there). Wealthy Americans and those who serve them don't see a problem because they travel by private jet.

Ummm, Ray, I don't know how to break it to you, but travel in America is cheap. I am old enough to remember the 1970s. You claim you are too. Before de-regulation - and all credit to Carter as well as Reagan - air travel was really expensive. It is much cheaper now.

You only have to go to Europe - and especially have gone to Europe before the budget airlines - and you can see places where travel is really expensive.

It would be hard to find anywhere where travel is as cheap as America.

So the premise of this paper is nonsense, as there are no geographic frictions in the U.S. I travel for work, and in the past 18 years it's become far more difficult to get from A to B, in terms of cost for sure but more importantly in terms of convenience. And it's getting progressively worse. While I travel in a high growth area, my understanding is that other areas around the country are experiencing the same geographic frictions. I applaud the authors of this paper for taking on the task of educating Americans that there's a huge cost to austerity, including scientific collaboration. Alas, most rely on belief, belief that America has the best health care system and belief that America has the best transportation system.

It’s older, but in The Future Mobility of the World Population by Schafer and Victor, a similar issue is discussed. Essentially as incomes increase so to does the average distance travelled.

If more developing countries are investing in education then you would expect to see greater access to high speed travel by researchers in these countries and thus a subsequent increase in collaboration over longer distances.

Interesting to see the assumption that the taxpayer or university should pay for the travel given that for researchers most of the benefits accrue to the researcher rather than the organization. A business might fund travel as they would own and also direct the results for the company. A senior university researcher, however, is supposedly researching their interest and will themselves gain from "an increase in higher quality and novel projects, as well as projects that take advantage of complementary knowledge and skills between sub-fields, and that rely on specialized equipment."

I suppose researchers suffer from the same mentality as other welfare state recipients in that they begrudge co-pays or simply paying directly when costs decline.

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