As 80mph winds swept across the Caribbean and the southern US, Hurricane Isaac left 41 people dead and caused $2.4 billion (£1.9 billion) of damage. The cost to the academic field of political science is less well known.
A new study, however, indicates that the destructive tropical cyclone led to 76 academic papers that would otherwise have been written never seeing the light of day.
That is the conclusion of three researchers who examined the impact of the cancellation of the 2012 annual meeting of the American Political Science Association in New Orleans. The conference, which typically attracts about 3,000 academics from more than 700 institutions to present papers, was called off at less than 48 hours’ notice as Isaac blew in.
By comparing the amount of collaborative research produced by more than 17,000 attendees at two major conferences between 2009 and 2012 – the Apsa annual meeting and the rival event hosted by the Midwest Political Science Association – Fernanda Leite Lopez de Leon, Ben McQuillin and Raquel Campos calculated that academics due to attend Apsa’s 2012 conference should subsequently have produced 624 joint papers.
In the event, they published only 548, meaning that 76 were “lost in the storm”. Academics who were affiliated to geographically distant institutions and whose research was closely related were disproportionately affected.
The paper, which was presented at the Royal Economic Society’s annual conference on 10 April, uses the unexpected cancellation to explore the impact of conferences on scholars’ collaborations and the strength of their research.
The trio found that, according to their data, attending a conference increases the likelihood of an academic subsequently collaborating with another participant by 18 per cent (from 13.2 per cent to 15.6 per cent).
This improvement increases to 22 per cent when only collaborations with a participant from a different institution are considered. Attending conferences also increases the likelihood of collaborations among new co-authors and among co-authors with closely related existing research interests.
The study also concludes that conferences improve the quality of collaborative research. Co-authored research conducted by academics due to attend the 2012 Apsa meeting was published in journals that were, on average, five points lower-ranked than expected. Their research was also 9 percentage points less likely to be in a top journal.
Dr McQuillin, lecturer in economics at the University of East Anglia, said: “Academics spend a lot of time and money attending conferences, and research funders effectively apportion quite a lot of the funds that they give out in research funding to organising or attending conferences. But it is a known problem that nobody has been able to measure whether that money and time is being well spent.
“This somewhat unusual event – the very last-minute cancellation of a very large conference – is an unusual opportunity to try to measure those effects.”