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It has been more than a year since Philipp Koellinger, an expert in the field of genoeconomics, behavioural economics and entrepreneurship, joined UvA’s Amsterdam Business School as a professor of Entrepreneurship and Innovation. One of his main goals was and remains to develop the interdisciplinary field of genoeconomics within the institution. We sat down with him for a chat.

Philipp Koellinger

‘The most important breakthroughs in science and technology often come from the intersection of different fields, not from marginal improvements in one field. Completely new things can arise when fields start interacting together,’ explains German national Koellinger in his office at ABS. He brings up the example of the internet, which originated from a collaboration between the US military and computer scientists.
Although a growing number of scientists acknowledge the importance of being open to what other disciplines have to say about ‘their’ topics, many universities remain organised along a monodisciplinary model, says 39-year old Koellinger, who was a visiting professor at [RP1] numerous universities including New York University, the University of Vienna, the Ludwig Maximilian University Munich and the Research Institute of Industrial Economics in Stockholm after obtaining a PhD in economics and management science in 2006 at Berlin’s Humboldt-University. UvA, however, has been one of the front runners in interdisciplinary programs for years - one of the main reasons behind his move from Erasmus University Rotterdam to UvA late 2013, says Koellinger. 

Underdeveloped research topic

He is fascinated by genoeconomics, a unique and still relatively undeveloped research topic with huge potential. ‘If - in the long run - we understand more of the genetic architecture and keep discovering additional genetic markers, we can develop a toolbox that sociologists, psychologists and economists can use to better understand the impact of changes in the environment on human behaviour. This can help them to do their job better.’ One question that genoeconomics research might help shed a light on, for example, involves the relationship between health and education: are people who went to school longer healthier because of the education they received, or are there genetic factors that influence both health and educational attainment? Koellinger: ‘Either way, we want to know. It’s relevant.’ 

Genoeconomics research is so complex that it simply cannot be done without a truly interdisciplinary approach, including social scientists, medical and biology researchers, insists Koellinger. Many of his former colleagues and PhD students at Erasmus work closely with him in the new interdisciplinary research group. 

Another factor that makes collaboration with other institutions key in this kind of research is the need for extremely large data sets. To address this need, Koellinger co-founded the Social Science Genetic Association Consortium (SSGAC) in 2011. The consortium is a collaborative enterprise of medical researchers and social scientists that provides scientists access to genetic databases from across the globe, and Koellinger remains one of its principal researchers. 

Explosion of genetic data

SSGAC coordinates studies of genetic association with social science outcomes and provides a platform for interdisciplinary collaboration and cross-fertilisation of ideas. These are crucial tasks, intensified by the explosion of genetic data which will become available in the next five to ten years as the number of genetic scans grows and costs continue to come down. Koellinger stresses the need for privacy safeguards in these studies: ‘We need to inform people what we are doing with their data, they need to understand it and they need to give an explicit okay.’ 

Besides, strict standards on the collection, storage and access of this very personal data is necessary to ensure they are only being used for approved research and to avoid abuse. Another big challenge in social science genetics is to get the science right; a flawed research design is likely to lead to wrong and misleading conclusions. Koellinger is calling for a public discussion to prepare for a future scenario when genetic information is much more widely available than it is today. In his view, such a debate is indispensable to identify possible scenarios that need to be avoided as well as to maintain public support for genoeconomics research. 

Koellinger seeks to align his genoeconomics research with the existing UvA research priority areas 'Behavioural Economics' and 'Brain and Cognition'. He intends to develop a strong genoeconomics research profile at the Amsterdam Business School that has international allure and attracts quality scholars and students from the Netherlands and abroad. ‘We can make a difference in this field. The SSGAC consortium has already made its footprint.’ 

Funding and applicability

It is fun and hard work at the same time. Koellinger spends some 10% of his time searching for funding - research grants from bodies such as the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research NWO, the European Research Council and the US National Science Foundation - to expand his research group. Funders must be patient: the research should be considered as groundwork; basic research, not primarily aimed at (commercial) applications. Although more practically applicable findings in the field of medicine and pharmacology may over time emerge, Koellinger won’t be pinned down on any specifics. The research is in too early a stage to elaborate on that, he insists. 

In one of Koellinger’s other areas of expertise, however, some highly applicable research outcome will be available soon. This spring, the professor of Entrepreneurship and Innovation will publish the findings of a study into the extent to which empirical literature on entrepreneurship can be trusted. The study is based on a systematic investigation and statistical research into a random set of 1,000 articles that appeared in English-language entrepreneurship journals. Koellinger: ‘If we find that the research results seem to be robust and trustworthy, that would imply that the work in the field is okay. However, if we find the opposite, this would mean that the scientific community needs to do its job better. In that case, we’ll draft a set of guidelines.’