Taking the next steps forward

By Albert Jan Hummel - May 7, 2016 - -
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Interview with Eric Bartelsman, new General Director of TI

Professor Bartelsman, you have recently been appointed as TI’s General Director. What motivated you to take up this challenge?

My involvement with TI started already quite some time ago. Somewhere in the mid-90s, I returned to the Netherlands and spent nearly a year as a visitor at VU and TI; since then I’ve been affiliated with the institute in one way or another. What I particularly like about TI is that, within the Netherlands, it is the place for world-class graduate training. And besides that, TI is much more than just a graduate school. Over the past 25 years it has managed to become an institute with international recognition, and a place where top universities and research institutes know they can go to hire excellent junior faculty. The idea of further strengthening TI’s position in the international (academic) job market is something I am very passionate about.

Following up on this, how do you view TI’s current position?

Of course, in terms of placement TI is not Harvard or MIT. However, we are not far away from the top-20 worldwide— and certainly the top-5 in Europe. To maintain or to further improve our position, it is crucial that we continue to be a very active member in the global economics research community. Being part of this network, and internationalization more generally, improves the quality of our people and the research that is conducted at TI. And of course, it would be great for TI if at some point, after having spent some time at other good places abroad, some of our alumni find their ways back to the faculties in Amsterdam and Rotterdam.

You mentioned that top universities and research institutes know they can hire good people from our institute. Is this also the experience you have had— for instance, with PhD students you are currently supervising, or have supervised in the past?

This is indeed what is happening. Over the past few years, TI has invested a lot in assisting and preparing students for the job market. A look at our placement record shows that this really seems to be paying off—and it’s certainly an area in which we must continue to invest. I believe that this year has been the year we’ve had the most fly-outs for our students who went on the job market, which indicates that our applicant packages are being taken seriously. But also when it comes to hiring junior faculty, I think that individual departments can benefit a lot from TI. Advertising TI as a vibrant research community to our potential candidates, as a place where you not only are part of a research group in one of the faculties but also have access to a continuous stream of top graduate students and international visitors, would definitely help us to continue upgrading our hires.

Do you think there is a lot to be gained in that respect? It seems related to the suggestion made recently by the Kapteyn Commission, that TI should be involved in all appointment committees of the three faculties, in order to enhance the link between TI and new hires.

Absolutely. As I said, I believe the three faculties could surely benefit from their links to TI in the international job market, and vice versa. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. TI has no authority in the hiring decisions of individual faculties or departments— neither is this something I would advocate. However, what TI can do is to play as needed an advisory role. What I said before applies here as well: making use of TI’s reputation could surely help faculties in attracting the best candidates. As a simple example, it could already help if we would consistently mention the institute in all of our job advertisements.

You have been appointed for a position of five years. Do you have any specific goals that you want to achieve during this period?

I find it hard to think about very concrete goals, as a lot will depend on the availability of the resources necessary to achieve them. But let me mention a few. First of all, I hope TI succeeds in combining the forces of the three faculties to attract more and better research visitors. I think the combination of Amsterdam and Rotterdam would make a very attractive place for a research visit of, say, three to six months— even for the very top researchers. Also, we are currently exploring opportunities to increase the scope of the TI program in a few directions.

“My main goal will be to find broad support and resources to maintain and improve TI’s reputation.”

To give a concrete example, Dennis Fok is currently investigating the possibilities to extend our offerings to service the faculties’ needs for MPhils/PhDs in the broad areas of (quantitative) business… Where these explorations ultimately take us is still completely open— and subject to much deliberation among and within the three faculties. Also, we may consider increasing our cohort size a bit, from currently 20 to 25 students to roughly 25 to 30 on a yearly basis. Of course, this would also require securing more funds as well as increasing the number of PhD positions, neither of which is an easy task. However, we could think of combined PhD and teaching positions, or combined PhD positions— not only with institutes like central banks, or the Fiscal Councils in the EU, but also with private sector research groups in finance or data science. At this point, these suggestions indicate the desired strategic direction. My main goal will be to find broad support and resources to maintain and improve TI’s reputation.

Looking ahead, what do you consider to be the main challenges to maintaining and improving TI’s reputation?

Being able to compete for the most talented students and researchers requires funds. The fact that primary funding is becoming scarcer therefore provides a serious challenge. For that reason, we have to be clever in finding ways to acquire additional funds— for instance, through summer schools, or from guest lectures provided by some of our top research visitors. A more permanent challenge is that the salaries at Dutch universities lie considerably below those from top places in the US and the UK. Luckily, researchers do not care only about where they can earn the most. What we as TI have to do is to create an environment in which a lot of good people can interact and collaborate: a place where researchers get their inspiration and where they can focus on doing world-class research.

In the last edition of TI Magazine, your predecessor Bauke Visser mentioned that one of the ideas he didn’t manage to execute was to explore ways in which the research conducted at TI could be communicated to a broader audience. Do you have any thoughts of your own on this?

I agree with Bauke that it is very important that researchers are able explain to society what they are working on and why they think their work is important. This is also demanded from society, and rightfully so. But I think that one must distinguish between national and global audiences. When a TI fellow writes for a Dutch newspaper, for instance, it is mostly communication between the home university and the national audience.

“What are my hopes for the longer term? That we succeed in creating an environment that spawns the successor-laureate to Tinbergen.”

TI will increase its efforts to advocate that researchers more often use platforms such as this magazine, or a platform like VoxEU or The Economist, to communicate their research to a global audience.

In five years, what achievements will satisfy you most?

In general, I would like to see TI become stronger as a globally respected research community. For the next five years, I therefore hope we manage to take a step forward in terms of both research ranking and job placement. Over the past few years, we have already made considerable progress by focusing more strongly on quality— the move to a system of evaluation of researchers that is based on article influence scores being an excellent example. This is definitely the way in which we should continue to develop ourselves. Also, it’s important that we continue to improve our job market training, where in previous years considerable progress has been made. What are my hopes for the longer term? That we succeed in creating an environment that spawns the successor-laureate to Tinbergen.

Eric Bartelsman is professor of economics and General Director at Tinbergen Institute. He holds a BS from MIT and a PhD from Columbia University. Prior to his appointment at VU in 2000, he served as economist at the Federal Reserve Board in Washington DC, as advisor to CPB Netherlands, and as Head of Economic Research at the Ministry of Economic Affairs in the Netherlands. In 2007 and 2008 he was a member of the Netherlands Council of Economic Advisors (REA), in 2012-13 he was non-resident Fellow of DG ECFin and presently he is Research Visitor at the ECB. His teaching ranges from first-year lectures to PhD seminars. His research interests are in the area of productivity growth, both from a micro and macro vantage point, and have led to publications in top journals. Bartelsman is a fellow of the Tinbergen Institute and IZA Bonn.

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