University of Southern Denmark and IZA
Andrew Jones is Professor of Economics and the Research Director of the Health, Econometrics and Data Group (HEDG) at the University of York, UK, as well as Visiting Professor at Monash University, Australia. He was elected to the Executive Board of the International Health Economics Association (iHEA) and is Co-Chair of their Arrow Award committee. He is also president-elect of the European Health Economics Association (EuHEA). Professor Jones conducts research in the area of microeconometrics and health economics, with particular interests in the determinants of health, the economics of addiction, and socioeconomic inequalities in health and health care. He edited the Elgar Companion to Health Economics and was the author of the chapter “Health econometrics” in the Handbook of Health Economics. Finally, in 1992, he established the European Workshops on Econometrics and Health Economics, which are co-organized yearly with Owen O’Donnell ever since.
Andrew was kind enough to take time from his busy schedule to answer a few questions and offer a few pieces of advice. You can find below the transcript of our very interesting and educational conversation.
Why did you decide to have a PhD in economics?
I moved directly from the MSc in Health Economics in York onto the PhD program, so there was a natural progression there. But before that, I’d had a bit of experience doing some applied research with David Storey at the University of Newcastle as a research assistant. That meant that when I went into the MSc I was already focused on carrying on and developing research through the PhD.
You said you have an MSc in Health Economics. How did you decide to specialize in health economics?
That really goes back to my undergraduate degree. During that, I did a third year module, which I think was called “The economics of human resources,” which was led by Tony Culyer and Jack Wiseman. This was a fascinating module about, for example, political economy and the economics of human capital, and it developed a specific interest. And there was a practical reason as well: there were studentships available for the MSc in Health Economics, so it was a way of getting funding to do graduate studies…
What was the main driver of your decision to pursue a career in the academia?
I think it really just evolved out of postgraduate studies. I enjoyed the experience doing research and working with data, and moving into academia was a natural extension of the PhD research. Plus, I always enjoyed presenting my work and also the experience I had teaching during the PhD.
How long did it take to complete your longest project?
It depends what you mean by a project! In a sense, I still have an ongoing project working with the UK Health and Lifestyle Survey, which is a dataset that I began using immediately after finishing the PhD. In terms of papers, from start until acceptance, nothing really stands out – on average, it takes a couple of years.
What was the best piece of advice you were given when you were starting off your career?
My PhD supervisor was Peter Simmons and his advice was to find a niche or a distinctive area of research that you can develop as your own.
Was there any specific difficult experience you encountered at the early stages of your career?
The main difficulty in the early years of my career is that my wife and I were long-distance commuters. Finding positions in the same place was a challenge and life’s been a lot easier since we’ve done that.
I completely empathize with that! Now, can you name the most important lesson you’ve learned that helped you as a researcher?
A couple of things. One is persistence: not giving up when things are rejected, whether it’s journal articles or funding proposals. The other thing is making the most of any particular piece of work, any particular project, looking at various ways that you can use that work, not just in journal articles but also in your teaching, putting together conferences and so on.
Can you name a moment of failure in your experience as a researcher and the lesson you learnt from it?
It’s hard to think of a specific moment of failure, I find it’s better not to dwell on these. I suppose I’ve always struggled to reconcile the empirical work that I’ve done on smoking (the discrete choice double-hurdle framework, which works very well empirically), with the theoretical literature on the economics of addiction.
Can you name your greatest success in your experience as a professor?
One of the things I’m particularly pleased with and proud of is the group of PhD students that I got to work with over the years.
In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before choosing a career in academia?
I think you need to enjoy problem solving, you need to enjoy sharing what you’ve learned with other people, and you need to have lot of patience.
If you were to think about the definition of a health economist back when you started your career, how do you think that definition has changed over time?
I think health economics has become much broader as a subfield of economics, partly because it’s become much more international in its perspective. There are far more subareas within health economics as well. I think the overall trend has been towards an evidence-based subject and greater emphasis on robust empirical analysis.
York is one of the leading centers for health economics and traditional organizer of the Workshop on Econometrics and Health Economics. Can you share your insights into building such a strong research group focused on health economics? Would you have any advice for research centers that are just starting out?
If I may start with the Workshop, at the time there was a lack of outlets for our particular strand of work on applied econometrics working with health data. The conferences that were around didn’t have an emphasis on that kind of work, so the idea was to create a workshop that satisfied that need, that filled that niche. I think it developed the way it did because there was an emphasis on the quality of the work, on giving space and time to the authors to present and develop that work and, at the same time, giving space to discussions of that work. There was also the idea of gradually building a network of regular participants, while at the same time allowing space to bring in new people into the area.
In terms of developing a research center at York, there are various factor that have been important there. One is that it was very much rooted in the social sciences, so the various activities (for example, the graduate program in health economics) grew out of the social sciences, in particular the economics department. The research activities have always been linked to post-graduate training. For example, the earliest initiative was to create the MSc in Health Economics, along with PhD programs. Another thing is that there were strong connections with policy makers, both in terms of them being the principal audience for the research that was done, but also in being involved in the funding of the institution from the start (funding studentships for the MSc program, providing a large share of funding for the research center, etc.). Close connections between policy and research have helped sustain the center.
If you were to think about the similarities and difference in the approach to health economics across different locations, say Europe and North America, are there specific things that pop out?
I think the large differences and most apparent differences are driven by the institutional settings, the policy priorities, and the differences in the organization of health care systems. That’s what tends to lead to different agendas in terms of topics. But I think there’s a lot of commonality in terms of methodology. I think there has been a convergence in empirical work in recent years, if you look at the main journals in the field and compare to their content in the 1980s.
Can you name three people who would be on your fantasy dinner party guest list (they don’t have to be economists)?
I struggle with this one, it’s difficult to pick … I’m going to say Bill Bryson, David Bowie* and Anna Netrebko.
If you were on a deserted island and you could only take three economics books or articles with you, which ones would you take?
I think it would depend on how long you were going to spend on the island. But I suspect rather than economics books I would bring books on survival …
If you could give one advice to your 14-year-old self, what would it be?
I think it would be that sticking with the education will pay off. And also to take any opportunities to travel, and try to learn some languages.
* This interview was conducted before the recent passing of David Bowie.