MEIDE Conference 2012: Micro Innovation for Development

Stunning Cape Town, South Africa, was the venue for our 6th Micro Evidence on Innovation and Development (MEIDE) conference, 21-23 November 2012, held alongside an OECD event on Innovation for Inclusive Development.

Professors Pierre Mohnen and Théophile Azomahou from UNU-MERIT were the main people in charge of this year’s conference. The HSRC Center for Science, Technology and Innovation Indicators (CeSTII), based in Cape Town, did a superb job in taking care of the local organization.Table Mountain, Cape Town, Flickr / Joseph Ferris III

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Redefining Value and Productivity

At one of our regular Thursday seminars earlier this year, the speaker repeated what we have often heard more casually: the productivity of an academic worker goes down when assigned administrative tasks; administration is not productive work.

Remarks to that effect pass for platitudes, seldom Flickr / E.Weaverquestioned. Yet, if one dispenses with prejudiced frames for a moment and gives it a second deliberate thought, it should seem a paradox. Administration is not productive work? Why ever not? The answer lies in the definition of what is being produced. The seminar speaker implied an assumption. That particular piece of research was concerned with producing new knowledge – publishing. Naturally, administration of taught programmes adds little to research output and the assumption is quite valid.

If we look at academia more broadly, however, the product can be variously defined. Here at our institute, we offer graduate programmes. That is the other product, aside from research. The fiddly business of concatenating appropriate metrics for the combined product stream is a different matter. But if we were to acknowledge that the taught part of our product catalogue is a ‘well-administered graduate programme’, suddenly the very definition of the product deems administration a core productive activity.

That is not to make a point exclusively about what we value in academia, although the above is hardly a trivial point. There is a larger discussion. Assessing productivity has much to do with how products are defined. And defining products has to do with value propositions.

Take cars. (What else? Indeed, nothing is more Flickr / R.Zymurgysymbolic of the old economic paradigm. But this is to connect to words of a promising young scientist I have closely followed for a while. He uses the example of cars. And it ties in nicely with the last two posts on this blog.) You leave home every day at 0830, arrive at office 0850 and park your car. Your neighbour leaves at 0910, arrives 0925, and parks. Your colleague has a lunch appointment at a hotel near your house, leaves 1225, arrives 1245, parks. All the cars parked for hours do not provide anyone with any value. Usually, they are just taking up precious space, arguably a drain on the economy if anything.

In a more wired world, where sensors at home and office and in phones and vehicles could coordinate and synchronize it all for us beautifully, we could share cars. Fewer cars would need to be produced to give equivalent or greater value. Why then be in the business of selling cars? Why not be in the business of selling person-kilometres? At my old institute (IIIEE at Lund University), we were accustomed to asking questions of that sort. At my current institute (UNU at Maastricht), would we not want to accordingly recalibrate the study of productivity?

We are nearly there – a world where less is more, a world with a more sustainable economic engine. We ought to redefine value propositions, products, productivity, and yes, our bread-winning term for the creation of new value – innovation.

by Sachin Kumar BADKAS, PhD fellow, Maastricht Graduate School of Governance and UNU-MERIT. Images: Flickr / E.Weaver / R.Zymurgy


He Said, She Said: Changes Ahead for Citation and Review in Research

Citation and peer review have been unchallenged central tenets of academic epistemology for at least as long as the keywords in this sentence have been around. To most in the field today, the very suggestion that they should be challenged is something akin to anathema. Yet that suggestion is on its way from a murmur to a roar. Three recent commentaries and trends undercut the importance of citation, at least as we understand it in academe.

The very concept of knowledge is changing or Flickr / Dan4th Nicholaspoised to change. In a world where it is no longer impossible for a digital encyclopaedia to contain every fact about every entity in every corner of the planet, netizens may be excused for expecting it to. Just as surely, authors may wish to add entries on subjects that no one else has ever bothered to write on.

As an instance, the New York Times article linked above mentions the Malayalam entry about an indigenous game known to ‘only’ a few million in a part of India. No published accounts of the game existed, and the authors had to improvise a new form of citation. In such a vast trove of knowledge, is the place and significance of citations of the conventional kind intact? How would we reconcile the old with the emerging forms of authority?

On the flipside, does the paramount emphasis on reviewing prior literature, given its bursting volumes and the ready access to it all stifle the rare creative spark? An educationalist at the Pope Centre argues that the customary research paper expected of students at every level does little to train them in the techniques of laying arguments and ideas of their own.

Many do a satisfactory job of reviewing existing literature, even an exhaustive one of which takes little effort online. Few ever try to expound a thesis of their own. It is not expected of them, as it was of scholars of the age when the foundations of scientific philosophy were being laid, the age of the word ‘thesis’ itself.

They leave college unable to write their mind and explore an all-new idea in the manner of the research articles that they routinely review in abundance. Should we train them at universities or leave it to the select few who will continue to age in academia to muddle through it at their own pace?

Lastly, concerns are rising over the awkward inefficiency of transacting scientific progress by way of academic journals, in a globalized, wired world. In a time of constrained budgets, universities are beginning to measure research success solely as a function of external funds brought in.

Given the skewed compulsions and perverse incentives embedded in the system, grassroots efforts have emerged to allow researchers to share negative results. It shan’t be long before some crowd-sourced authority online could tell you whether or not you should be undertaking a particular research question. And why not?

Sachin Kumar BADKAS, PhD fellow, Maastricht Graduate School of Governance and UNU-MERIT. Image: Flickr / Dan4th Nicholas


Media and Science: How to Bridge the Attention Divide?

Research is hard work and the returns are often small. It is therefore unsurprising that it can be tempting to embellish the results.This goes some way to explain why the public image of science, and especially social science, has recently been tarnished; the biggest recent blow being the uncovering of the extensive academic fraud committed by social psychologist Diederik Stapel (New York Times, 2011).

However, regular media coverage of science also contributes to an unfavourable view of social science. Sexy, ‘funny’ or ‘surprising’ topics are favoured by the media. Most social science studies do not fit any of these categories. Therefore they rarely generate media attention.

This is not Patients at the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research in Dhaka, Bangladesh. necessarily a deplorable state of affairs. After all, why should Joe Bloggs be interested in the little steps of progress made by social scientists? (And yes, I do believe that social science is useful on the whole.)

Nevertheless, I am concerned about two related issues.

First, if the quality of social science research that attracts media attention is worse than what most researchers produce, it will ultimately damage the reputation of all social scientists and society’s willingness to fund social science research. To return to the example of Diederik Stapel, his findings that meat-eaters are more selfish than vegetarians certainly generated media attention; yet they turned out to be a hoax.

Second, from within the academic ivory tower, it is more and more frequently assumed that small is not beautiful. Journal editors and reviewers will reject or accept papers based on whether it is a ‘significant contribution to the literature’.

I am not alone in my observation that there is a tendency to dismiss societally-relevant work because of practical limitations that studying the messy outside world invariably brings with it (Cialdini, 2009). Instead, laboratory work that yields more ‘conclusive’ results is preferred.

However, it is vital for theories to be tested in the real world. In the case of my recent study on the impact of media coverage on cancer screening, there were competing theories. On the one hand, some argued that the messenger influences the persuasiveness of a message, which would result in preaching to the converted. On the other hand, others suggested that awareness is the key factor, thus predicting a relatively large increase in the previously unscreened population.

Our findings were supportive of the hypothesis that media coverage of cancer prevention and screening mainly has an awareness raising effect. Efforts to generate positive media attention should therefore be encouraged. This may not be a surprising conclusion, but it can certainly be a useful one.

by Siu Hing Lo, alumna of the Maastricht Graduate School of Governance. Image: UN Photo / Mark Garten

Cialdini, R.B. (2009), We have to break up, Perspectives on Psychological Science, 4:1, 5-6.
New York Times (2011), Fraud case seen as red flag for psychology research, Accessed online 28 April 2012

Micro-modelling Public Policy: A Way out of the Crisis?

‘Nothing is certain but death and taxes’ according to an old British proverb. Everything in between is rather more complex, not least public policy. Before rolling out complicated, expensive policies on large populations, decision-makers not only need reliable data but also to run simulations.

Wherever they skip modelling, governments open themselves up to countless unforeseen factors. These include aspects that may have sparked or worsened the economic and demographic crises now facing Europe.

At a recent conference in Ireland, three of our PhD fellows presented papers of some significance to our troubled times. They focused on tax benefits for mobile workers, earnings dynamics, and retirement choice modelling — summarized in the soundcloud below.

Conference Backstory
As the European City of Science 2012, Dublin hosted the ‘European Meeting of the International Microsimulation Association‘, an international conference that brought together researchers from over 30 countries presenting 116 scientific papers.

Researchers from the German Labour Economics Institute (IZA), the National Institute for Regional and Spatial Analysis, UNICEF, and the European Dynamic Microsimulation Network, all came to discuss methodological aspects of their work. In other words, how they go about simulating and modelling complex policies.

What is Microsimulation modelling?
Microsimulation modelling is a form of computer based simulation model that simulates policy, economic, social and environmental change at a micro level (household, firm, and farm).The methodology allows one to evaluate and improve the design of public policy on a computer before rolling out often costly programmes on the general population.

To some extent the methodology can be regarded as a computer based laboratory for running policy experiments. They can thus help to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of public programmes.

A commonality across the different fields here is to use computer based techniques which aim to improve the design of public policy. To escape the economic crisis, we need to focus on methodologies that can provide better policy design. This is particularly true in Ireland, where the economic contraction over the past four years resulted from a number of policy failures.

Plenary Speakers, from left: Prof. Olivier Bargain (University of Marseilles), Prof. Richard Blundell (UCL), Dr Cathal O’Donoghue (Teagasc), Dr Andreas Peichl (IZA, Bonn), Prof Raj Chetty (Harvard University), Prof. Hilmar Schneider (IZA, Bonn)

We have much to learn from the experience of the modellers present at the conference to improve the design of our public policy. In policy making, often it is the results that are most important and influential. However in order to effectively analyse policy and other changes, it is important to develop capacity.

Technical push, focal pull
Scientific developments that focus on model design are important building blocks. To avoid re-inventing the wheel, something that unfortunately many policy modellers are frequently accused of, it is important to codify and to disseminate the knowledge that is generated through our modelling research.

The field of microsimulation has to some extent been held back by a lack of focus on this aspect in recent decades and the hope is that this conference can facilitate improved learning and development. Facilitating this there are plans for a number of journal special issues.

Participants from left: Dr Cathal O’Donoghue (Teagasc, Ireland), Dr. Jinjing Li (NATSEM, Australia), Dr. Raymond Wagener (Director of the Inspection Générale de la Sécurité Sociale (IGSS) , Luxembourg), Irina Burlacu (MGSoG, Netherlands), Dr. Philippe Liegeois (CEPS/Instead, Luxembourg)

PhD fellows and alumni from the Maastricht Graduate School of Governance presented their work at the conference. Irina Burlacu (PhD candidate) discussed the effect of tax-benefit systems on the welfare of mobile earners, using static micro-simulation on synthetic data, based on the cases of Luxembourg and Belgium.

Denisa Sologon (School of Governance alumna) proposed a new approach in simulating earnings profiles, based on a sophisticated error componence structure, which draws upon the literature used to study earnings dynamics. Jinjing Li (School of Governance alumnus) gave a presentation on retirement choice modelling and simulated retirement choices, using panel data, examining the effects of reforms on retirement. Click the soundcloud below to hear more about their presentations.

by Irina Burlacu, PhD fellow, UNU-MERIT / Maastricht Graduate School of Governance

New Blog on Digital Research Methods: ‘SHARE-IT’

In December 2011 we won a ‘Leading in Learning’ grant of €10,000 to develop a blog on digital research methods. It was launched in April 2012 and is called: ‘Support & Help for Academic REsearchers by using Information Technology’ (SHARE-IT).

Our blog presents knowledge and experience in IT-based ways of doing research. This ranges from the use of online forums for discussing research results to the use of Google for searching for literature; from online reference managers to ways of keeping track of current developments online. Overall SHARE-IT provides short, accessible and critical discussions of such online tricks and tools.

Posts will be written by and for early career researchers. So if YOU’RE a researcher with something relevant to share with the world, why not contribute by contacting us here? You could discuss a particular tool or workaround from you own experience. And beyond sharing your knowledge, it’s a way to make your research better known.

Besides Florian Henning and Martin Rehm, our project team consists of Koen Beumer and Joeri Bruyninckx (at Maastricht University’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences) and Jeroen van Merrienboer and Daniëlle Verstegen (from the Faculty of Health and Medicine).

Florian Henning and Martin Rehm, Researchers at the Maastricht Graduate School of Governance / United Nations University-MERIT.