Sarah Gharib, EPRG Outreach, talks with Professor Paola Manzini, Deputy Head of the School of Economics and Finance and the Director of Research in the School.
Sarah Gharib: Hi Paola! Let’s start with you introducing yourself, what’s your position in the School of Economics and how long have you been here?
Paola Manzini: I started at St Andrews in 2009 when I joined the School as a Professor of Economics. I came from Queen Mary, where I had spent most of my career, and after 11 years there, I wanted a challenge and moved up here to beautiful St Andrews. I found it very different from Queen Mary, where it was more of a city and had very interesting students, but the quality of students I found here in St Andrews was mind-boggling, not just academically, but they are extremely well-rounded people. The activities that you do here, it’s just developing personalities on all levels.
However, I haven’t been teaching for the past 2 or 3 years, as now I do a lot of admin work. Ever since I’ve arrived, one of the mandates was to hire new staff, as a lot of our old staff was leaving due to retirement and such. Now, we have a wonderful array of young, energetic, committed and talented lecturers and you can feel it, their energy, in the classroom as well. We’ve introduced new modules, now there’s a lot of room in senior honours to pick whatever you’d like. Currently, my role here is that I am the Deputy Head of School, I am the Director of Research, I’m also chairing the Recruitment Committee, so I deal with all appointments for academic and non-academic posts, along with other roles such as chairing the Ethics Committee.
SG: Speaking of research, where do your research interests lie? You spoke a bit about micro; can you go a bit more in detail about that?
PM: When I started I was working on negotiations and bargaining, and then I noticed how there are assumptions there about how people trade-off. I started thinking about how people value time and how people represent time and preferences, and that got me into individual behaviour. In the past ten years, what I’ve been doing is studying people that are boundedly rational, so agents that are not your standard textbook super-rational guy with beautiful preferences that can rank absolutely all possible alternatives. We are not like that. We eat when we know we shouldn’t, we gamble when we know we shouldn’t, we drink when we know we shouldn’t, we do things that we know we shouldn’t. My research is in building mathematical models of human behavior that is not fully rational. In some cases I’ve been able to do experimental tests of the theories, just to check that they work. What I do is verging towards the overlaps between economics and psychology. Nowadays, there is a real push for interdisciplinary research.
SG: Not only are you Director of Research, but among your various admin roles, there is also that of REF Impact coordinator. Where do you feel the School of Economics is heading in terms of the research that is being done by its members?
PM: Well, we cover basically all the main bases – micro, macro, and econometrics. Moreover, some of the research interests of staff in the school is reflected in the modules that are taught because we really believe in getting the students to see research-led teaching and see what is actually going on, but that is mainly in honours. Furthermore, our main criterion when hiring people is really research excellence. We are not prescriptive in terms of what we want people to do. One of the things we want to strengthen is applied research, we have an experimental lab in the school, and various people do experimental economics and run experiments and check the theories, but also have academic freedom to let people research what they would like. What we are prescriptive about, however, is quality. There is no compromise on that. We want people to publish, to work on stuff that will be published in top journals, that will be recognized, that will be cited, that will have an impact and an influence on the profession.
SG: Do you feel that there is this move towards experimental economics, like you said, instead of just working in the theoretical area?
PM: It’s something that excites people, but we just want to do stuff that is interesting, regardless of method. You know, you need a bit of everything, if you want to get to penicillin you must start from somebody that just studies a single molecule. What I do is mainly theory, just a pen and a paper and I am happy. But there is this company in Edinburgh that provides game analytics, so if you are the owner of Candy Crush, you want to know who is using your app, who is making purchases with this app, etc., and this company provides a platform so that app owners can subscribe to the platform and get stats, etc. They needed economists to help them figure out things, so a bunch of us just said look, this sounds interesting and fun, we have something to contribute, so let’s have a go. The team there is evenly split between people that do empirical work and people that do completely theoretical work, and again, the issue isn’t the method, there are many different ways you can use to tackle the same question, it’s the willingness to be engaged with the world and what goes on there.
SG: Speaking of being engaged, this new Outreach initiative that we’re doing, within the Economic Policy & Research Group, how do you feel that this can benefit the School of Economics and why has the school worked with us to move this initiative forwards?
PM: Well, there’s something awkward about St Andrews, which are the buildings. They’re beautiful, but they’re not meant to be offices, they were not meant to be part of a university the way we conceive of it today, so there’s no meeting spaces. We are very keen to engage more with students and share our passion for research with the students, so whatever we can do to make us more available and get you to know us more is very welcome. For me, the way I see it with my Director of Research hat on, it is also to provide another way for you guys to know about the things we are doing. As you know, there is this research assistantship scheme that we are running, which has been extremely successful. It’s very tough for us because we haven’t been able to satisfy all the demand, but the feedback we’re getting is that the students are enjoying the process and getting to see what it means and what it’s like. This is good to get you to know us from yet another perspective than what you get.
SG: I think it’s also important to see what the school does in terms of research. Are you working on more efforts to increase communication?
PM: Oh, absolutely. We are, just now, in the process of completing a database of the research profiles of all of the members of staff, which will be more for external consumption, for PR and journalists, but also something that would be good to be accessible more widely for students to see what we are doing. There was somebody who had raised at a staff-student meeting to know a little bit more about the research assistantship schemes before they run, the problem for us is the way it’s run by the proctor’s office – this year we only knew after there had already been a call for them. It’s difficult for me to tell you before I know what’s on, but I’m trying to think of ways to do that, and make it more accessible, and maybe see if it would be to have one person involved more heavily and with more responsibility in a longer project. I also spoke to someone about having nuggets, for instance about the working papers we do, to maybe summarize the main messages of the papers, why should people care, to explain a bit more and to show what we’re doing.
Feature image courtesy of Paola Manzini.