In all sciences there is a heavy concentration of the most productive and influential researchers in top US research institutions. Pedro Albarrán, Raquel Carrasco, and Javier Ruiz-Castillo‘s study focused on geographic mobility and research productivity in a selection of the world’s leading economics and departments and shows how increasing numbers of scholars gravitate to the US from the rest of the world to complete their graduate education and pursue an academic career. Good governance that prioritises research, a capacity to attract public and private resources, higher salaries, better facilities, and meritocratic hiring and promotion decisions all help to account for the concentration of the best science in the US.

In this post we discuss three topics: the concentration of top academic economists in only a few top US institutions; the attractiveness of these institutions for young people who, to pursue an academic career, must earn a PhD in the best possible department; and the differences in research output between the US and other geographical areas.

The concentration of economists in top US institutions

In all sciences we observe a heavy concentration of the most productive and influential researchers in top US research institutions. From the supply side, it is safe to assume that all scientists try to be hired at the best possible institutions. Publications, seminars, and conferences provide a continuous vehicle for communicating research results and signalling one’s professional merits to prospective employers. Top researchers cluster in institutions with prestigious undergraduate programmes and in departments with excellent research reputations. On the demand side, the key characteristic of a world-class university is the quality of its research staff. Therefore, world-class institutions would typically attempt to hire outstanding researchers. Thus, as long as the matching process between supply and demand works reasonably well, we should expect a heavy concentration of the most talented scientists in top research institutions.

Our research sought to explore this and focused on a dataset combining two sources. The first of these was faculty members working in 2007 in a selection of the 81 best economics departments in the world (of which 52 are in the US) according to the Econphd (2004) ranking. The second was economists from other institutions who have received an important professional distinction; namely a fellowship in the Econometrics Society, a membership in the American Academy of Sciences, or a Nobel Prize. We measured our economists’ individual productivity using a quality index that weighted the number of publications up to 2007 in four journal classes [1]. The sample of individuals with at least one publication –the total sample – consisted of 2,605 economists, of whom the 332 most productive belong to what we will hereafter call the elite.

We distinguished between three areas: the US, the EU – the 15 countries comprising the European Union before the 2004 accession – and the rest of the world (RW). The result of the funnelling effect towards US institutions can be clearly observed in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Percentage of people in the total sample and the elite classified by their nationality (country where they obtained a BA), the country where they obtained a PhD, and the country of their current job (in 2007). Source: Albarrán, P., Carrasco, R. & Ruiz-Castillo, J. (2017) “Geographic mobility and research productivity in a selection of top world economics departments“, Scientometrics. © Akadémiai Kiadó, Budapest, Hungary 2017.

Graduate education

Looking specifically at graduate education, we split our total sample into three groups: those working in (i) a selection of ten top PhD-granting institutions in the US; (ii) the remaining 42 US institutions; and (iii) the 29 institutions in the 11 non-US countries. We then looked at where our economists obtained their PhDs. As can be observed in Figure 2, the concentration of PhD graduates from the ten top US departments goes from less than 50% in the total sample to approximately two thirds in the elite. The degree of collective inbreeding among the elite, and the special role of the two graduate schools training the largest number of scholars – Harvard and MIT – are particularly impressive.

Figure 2: The types of graduate schools attended by economists in the total sample and the elite. Source: Albarrán, P., Carrasco, R. & Ruiz-Castillo, J. (2017) “Geographic mobility and research productivity in a selection of top world economics departments“, Scientometrics. © Akadémiai Kiadó, Budapest, Hungary 2017.

To the 70% of economists in the total sample who obtained their PhD in the US, we should also add the 12% who attended graduate school in the UK or Canada. Furthermore, PhD programmes in some of the remaining institutions in the EU or the RW are inspired by those taught in these Anglo-Saxon countries. Thus, a vast majority of the total sample receives a very similar type of graduate education. Consequently, they share a very similar methodological outlook, as well as a common view of what constitutes high-quality research.

Differences in research output between the US and other geographical areas

Given the concentration of talent in the US, there is a considerable difference, in all sciences, between the research output produced in this country and elsewhere. Figure 3 illustrates the clustering towards a handful of US institutions in the total sample and the elite. Looking at our economists’ publication productivity, the top ten US departments contribute approximately one third of all quality points in the total sample, a contribution almost ten points greater than that of the 11 other sample countries (left-hand side in Figure 3).

Figure 3: The distribution of quality points according to the institutions where economists work in 2007 in the total sample and the elite. Source: Albarrán, P., Carrasco, R. & Ruiz-Castillo, J. (2017) “Geographic mobility and research productivity in a selection of top world economics departments“, Scientometrics. © Akadémiai Kiadó, Budapest, Hungary 2017.

However, part of the scientific success achieved by US institutions must be attributed to researchers born outside of the US and who either remained there after obtaining their PhDs or moved there after attending graduate school at home. Consequently, when we turn to the classification of researchers by their country of origin in Figure 4, things change dramatically. The quality output of US nationals, representing 51.8% of the total, is 24 percentage points lower than the output attributed to US institutions. How can we account for this difference? The output attributed to economists born in all EU member countries is eight points greater than the output attributed to economists working in EU institutions; whereas the output attributed to economists born in the RW is 16 points greater than the output attributed to economists working in seven RW institutions.

Figure 4: The distribution of quality points according to the geographical area where economists are born in the total sample and the elite. Source: Albarrán, P., Carrasco, R. & Ruiz-Castillo, J. (2017) “Geographic mobility and research productivity in a selection of top world economics departments“, Scientometrics. © Akadémiai Kiadó, Budapest, Hungary 2017.

In the elite, the dominance of US institutions is overwhelming: the percentage of total quality points contributed by economists of all nationalities working in Harvard and MIT is three percentage points greater than the all contributions of departments in the 11 other sample countries put together (right-hand side in Figure 3). However, as observed in Figure 4, the quality output of US nationals, representing 61% of the total, is again almost 24 percentage points lower than the output attributed to US institutions. The contribution of EU nationals and those born in the RW is of the same order of magnitude, meaning the increase relative to EU and RW institutions is again of eight and 15.4 percentage points, respectively.

Final remarks

Good governance that prioritises research, a capacity to attract public and private resources, higher salaries, better facilities, and a reasonable degree of ability in hiring and promotion decisions – guided by meritocratic criteria – all help to account for the geographic concentration of the best science in the US. It could be argued that this situation maximises efficiency at the world level. However, we feel that such an uneven geographical distribution of talent is less than ideal. Better governance and additional resources in the EU and the RW may give rise to an improved worldwide situation, with an elite less concentrated in the US.

[1] Classes A, B, and C consisted of 5, 34, and 47 journals respectively, with class D comprising any other journal. The four classes were assigned weighted quality points of 40, 15, 7, and 1 respectively.

This blog post is based on the authors’ article, “Geographic mobility and research productivity in a selection of top world economics departments”, published in Scientometrics (DOI: 10.1007/s11192-017-2245-x).

Featured image credit: LEGO micro world map by dirkb86. This work is licensed under a CC BY 2.0 license.

Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the LSE Impact Blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our comments policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

About the authors

Pedro Albarrán is an Assistant Professor at the Departamento de Fundamentos del Análisis Económico, Universidad de Alicante, Spain. He earned his PhD in Economics at CEMFI and Universidad Complutense, Spain, in 1995. His main fields are microeconometrics and labor economics.

Raquel Carrasco is an Assistant Professor at the Departamento de Economía, Universidad Carlos III, Spain. She earned her PhD in Economics at CEMFI and Universidad de Alcalá de Henares, Spain, in 1999. Her main fields are applied microeconometrics and labor economics.

Javier Ruiz-Castillo is an Emeritus Professor at the Departamento de Economía, Universidad Carlos III, Spain. He earned his PhD in Economics at Northwestern University, USA, in 1978. His main fields are welfare economics and scientometrics.

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