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'In Order to Have Teaching That’s Really Worthwhile, You Have to Have People Who Are on the Frontier of Research'

Chief Research Fellow of the International Laboratory of Decision Choice and Analysis Eric Maskin and Laboratory Head Fuad Aleskerov

The only way to detect weaknesses in one’s own ideas is to expose them to criticism from colleagues, says Eric Maskin, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2007, Chairman of the HSE International Advisory Committee, and chief researcher at the International Laboratory of Decision Choice and Analysis. The HSE news service recently spoke with him and Fuad Aleskerov, head of the Laboratory, about the the value of other people's opinions, joint research projects and opportunities for international cooperation in our time.

— Professor Maskin, what are the main goals of your current visit? How do you collaborate with your colleagues from the Laboratory?

Eric Maskin: I’m a member of the Laboratory, so one of the purposes is to visit the lab, to talk about some of the work that I’ve been doing and to hear what people in the lab are doing. In the past, I’ve been very interested in what people here are doing, because there are areas of uncommon research, so we each can help the other in our current projects by discussing the work that we’re doing.

Fuad Aleskerov: I’d like to add that right after this interview we are going to meet the people from the lab and there will be a discussion with our young researchers about their projects. Professor Maskin is closely involved in the work of the lab.

— At the meeting on Monday one of the issues discussed was how to encourage interaction between Russian and international staff so that they do not end up as two isolated communities that do not interact. How can this be achieved?

Eric Maskin:  I’d say there is a fair amount of interaction between American universities and Russian universities. I come here a lot; members of the lab have come to Harvard for periods of time. But there is a risk that there will be less interchange. One of the questions raised at the IAC meeting was what to do about that. Some of the problems have to do with misperception. People in the U.S. may be under the mistaken impression that it’s no longer possible to have free academic inquiry in Russian universities, and that is simply not true. Some of what is needed is just getting rid of these incorrect rumours and replacing them with the truth.

— Based on your experience here, how do we make this collaboration between Russian and, in this case, American researchers fruitful? What is your secret?

Eric Maskin: There’s no secret. The work that people are doing here is very much up my own line. It’s work that I find interesting and similar in method to my own. It’s work that inspires discussion and collaboration by itself. The fact that it may be Russian researchers who are doing it makes no difference at all. There are certainly no barriers that I perceive that interfere with our discussion or our collaboration.

Fuad Aleskerov: Science is international. There are Russian scientists, but there is no Russian science, or American science. Everything depends on, first of all, the level of research. Naturally, when you go to a good university from Russia, for instance, you have to go there with good results to attract attention. In this case, collaboration, exchange of seminars and ideas is a normal thing.

Eric Maskin: Scientific work transcends international boundaries. Doing the work here is the same as doing it anywhere.

Fuad Aleskerov: In America, it’s a bit warmer.

Eric Maskin: At this time of year, yes.

— Could you tell us a bit about ongoing projects? What are you working on at the moment?

Fuad Aleskerov: The whole direction of the lab is to apply the methods of decision analysis, social choice, etc to different kinds of applications and to develop these methods in terms of theoretical work. Collaboration in this sense is wider: we don’t sit next to each other and write a common article. But, for instance, today’s presentation by Prof. Maskin was very useful for us. There were a lot of questions for Prof. Maskin and a lot of ideas. We can further develop this work. It’s not collaboration in terms of sitting and writing a joint paper, but it really enriches our common interests.

Eric Maskin: A very important part of science is to find weaknesses in new ideas. And the only way to find the weaknesses in your own ideas is to expose them to others for criticism, and that’s why seminars or informal discussions around the table are so important. It gives you the chance to test what you’ve been thinking about in front of a discriminating audience. Also, they make you view for how you can take what you’ve developed already and move in some new direction. 

Staff members of the International Laboratory of Decision Choice and Analysis

— I was looking through a brief report on your project last year, and I was amazed at what a wide range of applications your work and your methods could have. Usually, people who are not familiar with mathematics or economics think that it’s all theoretical. They don’t understand how it applies to real life. And I saw that you studied universities, the work of financial markets, company operations, and many other practical applications.

Fuad Aleskerov: I don’t usually remember many quotations, but this one I like. It has been said that nothing is more practical than a good theory. This is why we can’t apply this kind of thing in many areas.

—  Could you say a few words on how the theoretical models can be used in real life given high levels of unpredictability and uncertainty? Right now it seems like we are coming into the age of greater and greater uncertainty in all areas of our life.

Eric Maskin: Most of us are very concerned about uncertainty. Uncertainty plays a big role in our analysis. Whenever you make a decision, at least almost whenever you make a decision, the consequences of that decision will be uncertain. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t make decisions. It means that you need a systematic way of thinking about uncertainty, which allows you to assess risk and assess benefits. Uncertainty is a major and a central part of what this lab studies.

Fuad Aleskerov: People make decisions at various levels. But when these are serious decisions to be made, which really touch many people or systems, why not to come to our lab and ask for some advice? I can’t say that they don’t come, but it could happen more often. We have an enormous number of tools, which can really help people to make these decisions.

— Another topic raised at the IAC meeting was the balance between research and teaching at universities. It’s an important aspect at Russian universities. In order to improve their position in international rankings, they need to publish more, they need to do more good research, and there are incentives for the staff to pursue research and abandon teaching; this leads to an imbalance. How can those interests be reconciled?

Eric Maskin: I think university is both about teaching and research. You need both. And the two actually are complementary. In order to have teaching that’s really worthwhile, you have to have people who are on the frontier of research, who can let students know what the most important recent knowledge is. You’re not going to get that from people who are remote from research. They might be able to teach but anything they can teach is going to be old. It’s very important to have a successful teaching programme at the university level that researchers become involved.

How do you give them the incentive? To some extent, teaching is good for research. If you really have a good idea, then it is worth finding a way to communicate that idea, so that others can understand. A very good test for whether others can understand is just to try to teach it in the class. I do this all the time. As often as I can, I take some of my recent work and try to present it in front of the students. It’s a great way of teaching me how to present the material in a way that is really understandable and is really getting through. So, for me, teaching is a great opportunity to improve my research. Also, I get asked questions by students that perhaps I didn’t think about before. This makes me go back to this work and look at it in a new way.

But beyond the incentive that you get from trying out research ideas in front of students, researchers can be rewarded for teaching in other ways. They can get bonuses for being judged as good teachers; HSE has a system of top teacher recognition – that can play a role. Someone who does a good job teaching can be relieved from other responsibilities; rather than taking on some administrative duties, you can do some teaching instead. In fact, the HSE is moving toward a system where everybody will be doing some teaching and some research.

Fuad Aleskerov: It’s been said that if there is no research at a university, such a university will very quickly be reduced to an elementary school. Research brings numerous rewards. For instance, if a good researcher is engaged in teaching, he can stimulate good students to pursue further research. This brings valuable feedback that improves the situation at a university. If a university doesn’t do research, there is no such feedback.

— Are you satisfied with the way your collaboration with HSE is moving forward? Is it what you expected it to be? What did you expect when your collaboration began?

Eric Maskin: You never know before you start about what is going to happen. You start because you are interested in some common ideas, and you want to pursue them. But I’ve been very pleased with my visits here, and that’s why I remain attached to the lab, and that’s why I keep coming back.

— I couldn’t help but ask this question, since this week is a Nobel week. I’d like you to comment on this year’s Nobel Prize winner, Angus Deaton. What is his contribution to economics?

Eric Maskin: He is a very important figure in the measurement side of economics: measuring poverty and welfare, measuring inequality, measuring consumption. He has developed new tools for improving our ability to analyze data. The biggest impediment to progress in economics is data and the analysis of data. And Deaton’s work has brought us well beyond the standards that existed 30 years ago. He’s a very deserving winner.

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