‘Moving From Being a Consumer of Ideas to a Producer of Research’
For over a year now John Nye, professor of George Mason University (USA), has been heading the HSE International Laboratory of Institutional Analysis of Economic Reforms. During his most recent visit to Moscow, Professor Nye told the HSE reporter about how the laboratory’s work is organized and what staff it needs, as well as about its research and new courses, some of which will be launched in May.
— Professor Nye, how did your collaboration with the Higher School of Economics start?
— I've been involved in many activities with the HSE and I've met several people at the HSE through conferences and the RSSIA workshop. I believe I was the first foreign participant in the RSSIA summer workshop, in 2009 in Konobeevo. After that I was involved in the Ronald Coase 2010 workshop in Moscow, which Maria Yudkevich helped organize. At the time I was on sabbatical from my university and lectured here as part of the exchange program between HSE and George Mason University. While I was here we discussed the initiative of the HSE to ask a number of foreign researchers to serve as laboratory directors. At that time, the HSE was also starting some initiatives on the economics of education. I said 'Ok, this is an interesting subject for me and I believe I can add some ideas to it' and so we began to work on that.
— What exactly is your role as an academic supervisor?
— I have multiple roles. Here I'm helping to guide the direction of the research so I often supervise what goes into the surveys, we talk about what questions to ask, and I participate directly in writing a number of papers based on our research. When I'm here in Moscow, which is usually about 9 weeks a year, I organize meetings with the staff about the different projects we are working on and give advice and recommendations about how to direct the research. On top of all this I give lectures and courses and participate in conferences and summer workshops.
As an example, this coming summer from May to late June I will be giving a course on Topics in Institutions and Economic History. It’s meant to be a mix of reading seminars and also a course in making research presentations. Part of the course will be about how to present papers using PowerPoint in a concise fashion. We will do the usual things in the seminar like reading papers and discussing them but every week I will make several students get up and discuss the assigned paper in short 15 minute PowerPoint presentations. In my view one of the things that is underestimated and undervalued in academia is the importance of presentation skills. It is so important in order to get a job, it is so important for presenting your research results, yet it's almost never taught. There are technical courses on presentations at some universities but rarely ones tailored to the specific needs of economics and the social sciences. What I can do is to help the students not only to learn the course material but also learn how important presentation is for perceiving the material. For instance, if you ask two students to present the same paper back-to-back, very often the rest of the class would get a different understanding of the material. Learning how to focus your discussion is exactly what you need to think about when you are going to international conferences or presenting your work at another university.
— How big is the difference between the Russian and ‘Western’ approach to studies and teaching? How do you interact with your Russian colleagues and students?
— It's still a bit of an adjustment process. One of the things that is still difficult is that very often when new people are accepted in the laboratory they plan to work as assistants on what we are already doing. And that's good but in US we do two things -- assistants are both expected to help with professors’ projects and also bring new projects of their own. Often a graduate student is not given a topic by his supervisor, he has to find it and then persuade faculty members it’s an interesting issue to work on. We need our students to come up with independent ideas. It doesn't mean all of the ideas will be accepted but the point is that the range of research topics in the laboratory is not predetermined.
At the moment we’re doing a lot of education-related studies but we could easily switch to issues about, say, historical change, social capital, the importance of nutrition, etc. One thing that is characteristic of many good institutions around the world is flexibility and we are hoping to introduce more of that here. The difficult problem for academia is that many Russian students are quite shy in the sense that they are reluctant to discuss their work, they are reluctant to voice criticism, and they are reluctant to be criticized themselves. They must understand that if you criticize their ideas it doesn't mean you are angry with them. Similarly, they must feel welcome to ask their professors what they don't understand about professors’ work without being told or feeling that the professors would get upset.
I think one of the biggest transitions is for a student to go from being just a student to being a colleague. It's interesting for instance that in many universities when undergraduate students receive their diplomas at the ceremony professors say to them 'Congratulations!'. But when it's PhD students graduating, professors often say something like 'Congratulations and welcome to the community of scholars!'. And part of the hardest transition for graduate students in my view is moving from being a consumer of ideas to a producer of research.
— What projects are currently underway in the laboratory?
— The HSE has a long tradition of conducting surveys and when I started to work here, the HSE was already beginning a survey on student performance. They are looking at two questions. The first one is college choice -- there are surveys of students applying to college all over Russia, and the goal is to look how the introduction of 'EGE' affects college choice. I'm not directly involved in this project but offer supervision for it. I myself am more interested in the other topic -- we've conducted a big survey of about 900 HSE students in which we study basic things like 'EGE', their high school test scores, what their family background is, what their major subject is, what department they are in at the HSE, and what their grades are. However in addition to that I had an idea to add questions about biological characteristics. More and more economists are getting interested in the issue of how much of human capital is tied to, say, nutrition or genetics. In that regard we are looking at things like the importance of height and weight or the role of prenatal testosterone. In particular, there is a large amount of literature in biology on the measurement of finger length – it’s well known that the ratio of the second to the fourth finger (2D:4D) is related to the amount of testosterone you are exposed to in your mother’s womb. And that is correlated with certain types of behavior patterns like aggressiveness, masculine tendencies, and the willingness to take risks. What we want to explore is looking at how those differences relate to performance in university.
Interestingly enough, in addition to this main survey at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow we have a similar survey in the HSE campus in Nizhny Novgorod and a parallel survey in the University of the Philippines School of Economics in Manila. This way we have not only multi-country studies but also different cultural backgrounds and yet we are finding some things that are quite similar. In addition, in Nizhny Novgorod and Manila we have more detailed studies of personality, something that psychologists call ‘Big 5 Personality Traits’. We have questions about whether people have generalized trust (whether in their opinion most people are trustworthy or not, whether they are willing to lend money more easily, whether they are willing to talk to strangers etc). Depending upon how people answer those questions we try to correlate them to various things. There is some literature now in experimental economics showing that in many economics games people with high test scores or a good education are more likely to trust others than those with lower scores and poor background in terms of scholastic ability. We are finding the same results in HSE and Manila and we are trying to investigate this work further.
— You are planning to come back here for several weeks in May and June. Would it be possible for students to work under your guidance during your stay?
— I presume so. This shouldn’t be a very hard thing. So long as I’m free I’m ready to talk with people informally who want to discuss ideas with me. After all, I’m here as a faculty member of the Higher School of Economics as well, and my doors are open to any HSE people who want to ask me some questions or come for advice.
— And what kind of background should students have in order to successfully apply for a position in the laboratory?
— We have in our group people not only from economics but also from sociology and psychology. Obviously for economics typically we want people who’ve taken the basic economics courses and ideally can do applied econometrics, in particular those who are familiar with instrumental variable techniques and other standard material in applied econometrics. But even people who don’t know these things but do have some skills in GIS software or other skills would be welcome as well. Our needs change so it doesn’t hurt to come to us to see if we have a place for you.
I also hope to encourage students to come to me to begin looking at some historical questions. I have some ideas for looking at how historical events that occurred 100-150 years ago in Russia or Europe have had effects on institutions, social capital, behavior, or regional differences in performance across the country to the present day. I want to investigate some of these ideas and hope to entice students, especially those who have good quantitative econometric backgrounds, to join us and help to develop these ideas.
— What are your plans for the next academic year?
— I think we are going to continue those educational initiatives and we have some broader surveys that are interesting as well. We may look at ties between family background, biological indicators, academic ability and outcomes like not just schooling but also the job market. We have continuing work on peer effects in school. We might look at issues tied to migration and demographics. Very often we are constrained by what data sources we can find. But because I am working with different international teams in the U.S. and Philippines it might be possible sometimes to draw interesting parallels to our findings here. For instance, I’m doing work on historical taxation in the wine industry in Europe, I’m doing work in the Philippines on elections, we are doing more work and experiments on trust in the United States, we have some work on corruption as well. On all these topics I might also pursue them in some form in Russia.
— After a year of work as an HSE faculty member what do you think about your experience here? Are you satisfied with how it has all panned out?
— It’s been a very satisfying experience. There are still some mild language barriers and there are still some frustrations bureaucratically as there is a lot of formal paper work to take care of. But nonetheless, I’m impressed by the extent to which the HSE is making efforts to simplify these matters for us and try to overcome the limitations of different technical systems and different legal requirements.
I’m also impressed by how active HSE has become. You can see that the sheer number of international scholars who come here are growing. I know that HSE students are getting accepted in foreign universities at a higher rate than ever before and I know that you have more active exchange programs. We can see that very rapidly, the HSE seems to be making progress in integrating itself into the world community of higher education.
Above all, I’m learning a lot, doing interesting work, and enjoying the chance to work with so many active and talented researchers.
Oleg Seregin, HSE News Service
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