Can An Airline Affect The Direction Of Science? Research collaborations often involve scientists from all over the world. A new study looks at plane ticket prices, and how they relate to the direction of science.

Can An Airline Affect The Direction Of Science?

Can An Airline Affect The Direction Of Science?

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Research collaborations often involve scientists from all over the world. A new study looks at plane ticket prices, and how they relate to the direction of science.

Renee Klahr/NPR
Can an airline affect the direction of science?
Renee Klahr/NPR


Governments and philanthropic agencies, you know, they spend billions of dollars every year to help teams of far-flung researchers discover new breakthroughs in science and medicine. Well, there's now new social science research suggesting an unexpected source of support for this endeavor might be coming from a low-cost airline. To explain what we're talking about, we're joined, as we often are, by NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam.

Hey, Shankar.


GREENE: So we're talking about an airline here that is funding research or what?

VEDANTAM: Well, we're talking about Southwest Airlines. And no, this doesn't have to do with Southwest funding science as much as it does with Southwest simply doing what it does best, which is offer cheap fares between places.


VEDANTAM: I was talking with Christian Catalini at MIT, and he told me that he is interested in the factors that influence whether scientists collaborate and what determines the quality of such collaborations. Some of his research grows out of personal experience. Catalini said that when it comes to collaborating with his colleagues Christian Fons-Rosen and Patrick Gaule, the geographic distance between them is often a big constraint.

CHRISTIAN CATALINI: I'm at MIT, and so I'm in Cambridge. Christian is in Barcelona, and Patrick is in Prague. Especially when we were Ph.D. students, of course, the cost of the flight had a big impact on our decision to collaborate and spend time together.

GREENE: Graduate students don't have all that much money. And so if they could get cheap flights, they could actually spend more time face to face and doing research together.

VEDANTAM: And not just graduate students - young researchers as well. And previous research has shown that even though there are all kinds of ways for scientists to collaborate online and via technologies like Skype, it's really useful for them to be able to meet face to face and spend time together. So if one barrier to meetings among these far-flung teams is the cost of travel, lowering the cost of travel should increase collaboration.

Catalini and his colleagues analyzed a massive data set of scientific performance and scientific collaboration in the United States, David. Specifically, they mapped out faculty members at U.S. universities studying chemistry. They eventually focused on a sample of 10,000 scientists, which included hundreds of pairs of collaborators. They measured what happens to collaboration between pairs of scientists before and after Southwest Airlines enters a region and starts flying routes between the two metro areas where the scientists are located.

GREENE: Oh, wow.

VEDANTAM: Now usually when Southwest enters a market, what happens is other airlines compete on these routes and fares drop dramatically.

Here's Catalini again.

CATALINI: We do see a substantial spike in collaboration when these cheaper fares become available. It's about a 50 percent spike. And what's interesting is that it's actually stronger when we control for quality. So the collaboration that were somewhat enabled by the cheaper fares doesn't seem to be lower quality collaborations.

GREENE: So it doesn't seem to be lower quality collaboration when we have these cheaper fares. But you actually came in and talked, at one point, to us about when there's more geographic diversity, when people from different parts of the country are able to come together and collaborate, actually increases the quality of the science. Right?

VEDANTAM: That's right. So this is research by Richard Freeman we talked about a few months ago, David. He found the greater the ethnic and geographic diversity of collaborators on scientific papers, the more likely the papers were to be cited by other scientists, which is one metric of the quality of the work. So making it easier for scientists in far-flung locations to spend time in one another's labs is probably a good thing for discovery. And in the long run, that's a good thing for all of us.

GREENE: It's funny. I can already hear, like, the Southwest ad saying, like, you know, want to do some research?

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

GREENE: Buy some tickets. But I guess it's - I mean, it's not just them. Once the fares are lower, I mean, all these airlines might be involved in what we're seeing here.

VEDANTAM: Precisely, David.

GREENE: OK. Thanks as always, Shankar.

VEDANTAM: Thanks, David.

GREENE: That is Shankar Vedantam. He regularly stops by to talk about social science research. And you can follow him on Twitter @hiddenbrain. And while you are there, follow this program at @nprgreene, @nprinskeep, @nprmontagne and @morningedition.

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