A Quick Pivot to COVID Research

A look at how Kellogg faculty started studying the economic and social impacts of the pandemic

In March, as schools and businesses were shut down and the death toll soared, Ben Jones watched events unfold with a feeling familiar to many of us: powerlessness.

“I found myself at home very concerned for everyone,” says Jones, a strategy professor. “In this pandemic, we all have a desire to help but we often feel powerless.”

To channel those feelings, he started thinking about what he could do as an economist and a researcher to help inform the public and policy makers. “Professionally, the question is do I have expertise I can bring to bear to help shape how we approach this incredible challenge to society. Like many people, I felt compelled to try.”

Jones was one of many Kellogg professors across multiple disciplines who quickly pivoted their research toward COVID-related questions. For some, the COVID studies were an extension of their ongoing body of research; for others, the new research was more of a departure. These papers — whose ranks continue to grow as the pandemic stretches on — address issues from how Americans spent their stimulus checks to social distancing behavior to the impact of the pandemic on scientific careers.

For his initial COVID-related paper, Jones teamed up with Dashun Wang, an associate professor of management and organizations, along with other researchers from Kellogg’s Center for Science of Science & Innovation. Jones and Wang turned to a topic they have both studied before: how scientific research is used outside of the scientific community. In this case, they wanted to know whether policy makers were incorporating the deluge of new coronavirus research into their own policy work.

“We’re truly in the biggest crisis of our generation, yet we know so little about how the pandemic is impacting us, both as people and as scientists,”

Dashun Wang / professor of MORS

“In the context of COVID, science is developing extremely quickly and policy is developing extremely quickly. The question is, does policy make use of all this new science?”

They find that, overall, policy papers from around the globe are integrating cutting edge science. This is particularly true within global health organizations. They also find that the less a government is writing about COVID in its policy papers, the more deaths they have. “It’s a very strong relationship,” Jones says.

Wang, Jones and colleagues are also working on paper that looks at what types of scientists pivoted into COVID research, whether the quality of that research depends on the closeness of their field of study to the topic, and what role teamwork played in these new projects. “A central question in the context of emergencies is about whether and how society can pivot its talent to solve more problems,” Jones says, “both to better attack COVID-19 and to make us better prepared for the future.”

Additionally, Wang completed a separate study in the first month of the pandemic that grew out of his previous body of research that looks at scientists’ careers. For the COVID paper, he and colleagues surveyed 4,500 principal investigators in the U.S. and Europe about how the shutdowns were affecting their work.

“We’re truly in the biggest crisis of our generation, yet we know so little about how the pandemic is impacting us, both as people and as scientists,” says Wang about the impetus for the study.

The most interesting finding for Wang was one that resonated loud and clear: when it comes to work productivity, parents of young children were hardest hit by shelter-in-place orders.

“Of course it’s childcare,” says Wang, who jokes that he’s become the COO of a daycare and school for his two young children. “Some days, that’s almost all that I do.”

While the finding makes complete sense in retrospect, he hopes that having it borne out in a rigorous study will help influence policies at research institutions as the pandemic drags on.

Finance professors Paola Sapienza and Efraim Benmelech, along with colleagues, tackled the issue of social distancing. They wanted to better understand what explains the variation in voluntary compliance with distancing guidelines, and found that in both the U.S. and Europe, compliance is linked to those who have a higher sense of civic duty.

“In my broader research agenda,” Sapienza says, “I have been interested in studying how social norms and attitudes of communities that care about their fellow citizens foster trust and economic activity. In this paper, I wanted to investigate how the same characteristics can help curb a pandemic where many health decisions people make — such as following social distancing guidelines or wearing a mask — impose externalities on their community.”

Georgy Egorov, a professor of managerial economics and decision sciences, also found a way to use his current research interests — xenophobia, hate crimes and social networks — to study COVID-related behavior. “I’d call this research a digression rather than a pivot,” he says, given that he already had much of the data he needed for his study.

He and colleagues looked at how levels of trust, especially among diverse communities, impacts adherence to social distancing rules. Using data from Russia and the U.S., they found that in more ethnically diverse areas, which tend to have lower levels of trust among neighbors, this lack of trust extends to their faith that others will follow social distancing guidelines, or at the very least self-isolate when they experience potential COVID symptoms. The result is that residents in these areas are more likely to stay home to avoid becoming infected.

In contrast, Jeffrey Ely, a professor of economics in Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences, who has a courtesy appointment in the department of managerial economics and decision sciences at Kellogg, moved well outside his regular research realm in writing COVID-related papers.

At first, when a colleague approached him this spring about investigating a dataset he had on COVID testing in the Czech Republic, Ely demurred. “I wanted to run as far away from it as possible because I thought it would amplify my stress,” he says.

But he soon reconsidered, and, along with a third colleague, dived into the data. He realized that economic theory, which is his normal area of study, has a lot of light to shed on our current situation. For example, “how can we change behaviors in a way that addresses problems at a minimal cost,” he says, as well as the best way to acquire information to make decisions.

“Very soon I had the feeling that this is exactly what I should be doing,” he says. “It was very energizing.”

Together, the researchers wrote two papers — one on how to rotate workers or students into a building safely and another on how to interpret testing results — in two months, “which is a lightening pace for an economic theorist,” he says.

“I think researchers across different disciplines all recognized that this may be a once in a lifetime opportunity to study something that is very important to humankind.”

Angela Lee / professor of marketing

Angela Lee, a professor of marketing, has also been struck by the urgency with which researchers are approaching these topics. She has conducted some of her own research on how Americans may be persuaded to adopt prevention-related behaviors, and has teamed up with colleagues in Europe and Asia to examine differences across countries in COVID-related perceptions, concerns and compliance.

Additionally, she is the editor-in-chief of the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research.

In April, they put out a call for a COVID-19 flash research issue. Three months later, they received over 130 submissions.

“I think researchers across different disciplines all recognized that this may be a once in a lifetime opportunity to study something that is very important to humankind,” she says.

Visit the faculty hub on COVID-19 research at Kellogg Insight for the latest analyses.

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