Colocation and Scientific Collaboration: Evidence from a Field Experiment
Executive Summary — In recent years there has been considerable interest in the policy arena on fostering collaborative and especially interdisciplinary collaborations. Yet there is scant evidence on how to do this in practice. To learn how team members find each other in the scientific community and decide to collaborate, the authors designed and carried out an experiment involving Harvard University and its affiliated hospitals. Results suggest that matching between scientists may be subject to considerable frictions, even among scientists in relatively close geographic proximity and in the same organizational system. However, even a brief and focused event facilitating face-to-face interactions can be useful for the formation of new scientific collaborations. Key concepts include:
- Face-to-face interactions play a central role in the initiation of new collaborations. Creating settings where scientists meet face to face and discuss early-stage research ideas can be useful for fostering collaboration.
- Matching between scientists is not easy. For example, many factors that affect successful collaboration are not easily observed to both parties until collaboration is well underway, such as personal chemistry and scheduling constraints.
- Time spent in events that facilitate face-to-face interactions also has opportunity costs. The effect of such activities on scientific productivity and welfare more generally is still unclear.
- This is the first study to bring field experimental methods to a workplace setting in the scientific community.
We present the results of a field experiment conducted within the Harvard Medical School system of hospitals and research centers to understand how colocation impacts the likelihood of scientific collaboration. We introduce exogenous colocation and face-to-face interactions for a random subset of biomedical researchers responding to an opportunity to apply for a research grant. While the overall baseline likelihood of any two researchers collaborating is small, we find that random colocation significantly increases the likelihood of pair-level co-application by almost 70%. The effect of exogenous colocation on subsequent collaboration was greater for previous coauthors, pairs including a woman, and pairs researching similar clinical areas. Our results suggest that matching between scientists may be subject to considerable frictions-even among those in relatively close geographic proximity and in the same organizational system. At the same time, even a brief and focused intervention facilitating face-to-face interactions can provide information that impacts the formation of scientific collaborations.