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Science in Coach

NPR social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam reports that low-cost airline tickets are having an effect on whether and how often scientists in different countries or different parts of the US are choosing to collaboration with each other.

Vedantam spoke with MIT researcher Christian Catalini, who works regularly with colleagues Christian Fons-Rosen in Barcelona and Patrick Gaule 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," Catalini tells Vedantam.

And it's not just graduate students who worry about the cost of travel. "Catalini and his colleagues analyzed a massive data set of scientific performance and scientific collaboration in the United States," Vedantam says. "Specifically, they mapped out faculty members at US 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."

What Catalini found was that when Southwest enters a market, other airlines tend to drop their prices as well, in order to stay competitive. And when that happens, Catalini tells Vedantam, "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."