How does one become a regional scientist? In my case my high school mathematics teacher in Uithoorn, the Netherlands, recommended that I should study something challenging like econometrics. Not having a strong preference for an alternative discipline, I followed his advice and enrolled in September 1972 in the Interfaculty of Econometrics and Actuarial Sciences at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (also referred to as VU University, or Free University Amsterdam). It was a small cohort, as they took in only the 30 best qualified applicants per year. It was called an Interfaculty because students were required to take core courses from the Faculty of Economics and from the Faculty of Science, as well as specialised courses in the Interfaculty itself. Thus, as an undergraduate student I had to struggle with topics like topology, measure theory and abstract algebra. The mathematical models used in undergraduate macroeconomics and microeconomics looked rather simple by comparison.
I started my Masters in Econometrics at VU in January 1975 and had to choose between mathematical economics, econometrics and operations research. A strong interest in public policy led me to mathematical economics, where the work of Nobel Prize winner Jan Tinbergen – who I met when he was visiting VU – still strongly influenced the curriculum. My Masters supervisor Arnold Merkies had previously worked at the Dutch Central Planning Bureau (now called CPB Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis) and offered me a research assistant position in 1976 to update and complete a study he had started at CPB on forecasting the long-run economic growth rate in the Netherlands under assumed scenarios of population growth and post-compulsory education enrolments. This introduced me not only to the economic growth theories at the time (and the inadequacy of the exogenous technological change assumption) but also to population projection methodologies and the use of Markov chains to model transitions. A seminar by Henri Theil, at the University of Chicago at the time, on modelling social mobility further inspired me to go in that direction. The Masters thesis was written in Dutch and sadly not subsequently published, but triggered a job as research assistant of the VU professors of economic growth and macroeconomic policy, Steven Huisman and Bernard Compaijen respectively. With them I contributed to a Dutch macroeconomics textbook.
By late 1978 I decided to do a PhD abroad and a pamphlet on the VU noticeboard advertising a new PhD programme at Victoria University of Wellington (VUW) in New Zealand led me to apply. While at the opposite side of the world, New Zealand was not an odd choice for me as several of my relatives migrated there in the 1950s and I had visited them and hence knew the country. Additionally, my parents decided to retire there in the same year. VUW offered me a job as junior lecturer, which was financially more attractive than a scholarship offer I received in Australia. I also met my wife-to-be soon after arriving in Wellington, so that settled the location question.
I decided on a PhD thesis on interregional population mobility, with labour economist Peter Brosnan as chief supervisor. Initially I started applying Markov chain models and could have gone in the direction of Andrei Rogers’ work, but became particularly intrigued by Bill Alonso’s general theory of movements. Formal econometric modelling of this model remained challenging for decades. I did design an estimation method and a New Zealand application, which was published in the Scottish Journal of Political Economy (a journal that had a tradition of publishing about labour markets and migration) in 1986.
My introduction to the regional science network was through taking regional, urban and transportation economics as elective courses during my Masters at VU. That is how I met Peter Nijkamp and the late Piet Rietveld. In early 1980 I received a letter “out of the blue” from Peter Nijkamp, jointly with Wal van Lierop, inviting me to participate in a summer institute in Soesterberg, The Netherlands. There I presented my first regional science paper on analysing intra-urban residential mobility with log-linear models. The discussant was Peter Batey.
Roughly at that time I also joined the Australian and New Zealand section of RSAI, which subsequently awarded me with the 1985 best PhD dissertation medal. Like many others in regional science, I continued to be active in other networks as well, in my case the New Zealand Demographic Society (now Population Association of NZ) and the NZ Association of Economists.
Following completion of my doctorate in early 1984, my family and I went on sabbatical back to VU in Amsterdam and to the Australian National University in Canberra. In Amsterdam, I started my first project with Peter Nijkamp on dynamics of generalised spatial interaction models, subsequently published in 1987 Regional Science and Urban Economics. My first presentation of this paper was at the 1985 PRSCO conference on Molokai, Hawaii, with Walter Isard as the discussant. Walter liked the paper – which was a pure theory one – and told me not to be concerned when some New Zealand colleagues had criticized the paper for having little practical use.
In the second half of the 1980s, I got my first large grant from the NZ government. The aim was to do a scenario-based impact assessment of immigration by means of simulations with a computable general equilibrium (CGE) model. For this, I worked with VUW’s Bryan Philpott, who had developed several CGE models for New Zealand, and his PhD student Ganesh Nana. At that time Australia and New Zealand were well ahead of North America and Europe in doing integrated impact assessment of international migration. Many of the issues that became subsequently core topics of immigration economics (such as the role of international trade, fiscal impacts, housing, technological change and population diversity) were already introduced in our 1988 book International Migration and the New Zealand Economy.
At the same time I continued working with Peter Nijkamp, and also with Jan Rouwendal, on endogenous economic growth in a spatial setting, leading to several articles in Annals of Regional Science and also one in Australian Economic Papers.
In 1994 I was offered an opportunity to spend a few years in Japan at the University of Tsukuba, on the invitation of former RSAI President and 1996 World Congress organiser Hirotada Kohno. During this time in Japan I also worked closely with the more recent RSAI President Yoshiro Higano. While my teaching in Japan introduced me to the challenges of environmental economics and policy, my research remained focussed on the economics of migration and endogenous growth. Upon returning to New Zealand in 1997 (VUW had graciously kept my position open), my VUW colleague Philip Morrison and I organised the December 1997 PRSCO conference in Wellington which attracted 250 participants from throughout the world.
After Peter Nijkamp won the 1996 Spinoza Prize, he used the funds to set up MASTER-point at VU University, a research centre for meta-analysis in spatial, transportation and environmental research and invited me to join MASTER-point as a visiting professor. Raymond Florax was appointed as director. Meta-analysis, the quantitative research synthesis of a body of empirical research findings, had become very popular in other disciplines such as psychology, medicine and education, but had received relatively little attention in economics. This association with MASTER-point during the late 1990s and early 2000s turned out to be a very productive period and led to highly cited publications. One topic was the labour market impacts of immigration, to which Simonetta Longhi, who was doing her PhD at VU at the time, made a major contribution.
In 2004 I took up, upon the invitation of New Zealand’s demographer par excellence, Ian Pool, a personal chair in population economics at the University of Waikato and the Directorship of the Population Studies Centre. We were very fortunate to secure during the following decade some large grants for research on population ageing, immigrant integration and regional population distribution in New Zealand that allowed participation of around 6-10 researchers. After a three year-stint as Director, I was happy to pass on that administrative role to my colleague Richard Bedford, who subsequently transformed PSC into the National Institute of Demographic and Economic Analysis (NIDEA), where I am at present.
As co-Principal Investigator of the 2009-2013 Migrant Diversity and Regional Disparity in Europe (MIDI-REDIE) project and having several other professional roles and projects in Europe as well, I became during the last decade one of the world’s longest distance commuters – spending several months in Europe each year, as well as continuing the New Zealand projects. Given that a lot of my work had been concerned with economic policy analysis, I was very honoured to win the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research (NZIER) Award in 2013, referred to by the NZ public as “Economist of the Year”.
In recent years I have been doing further meta-analyses, including with Henri de Groot and Martijn Smit on agglomeration externalities (with the latest paper recently published in Journal of Economic Surveys) and with former VU PhD student Ceren Ozgen (now at the University of Birmingham) on productivity effects of net migration (in Papers in Regional Science). Work with Ceren also included several projects on trying to find causal evidence of diversity impacts on innovation.
It is clearly impossible to mention all research collaborators around the globe since the turn of the millennium, but I should acknowledge many interesting projects with former Waikato PhD students Bill Cochrane, Matt Roskruge, Valente Matlaba, Steven Bond-Smith and Lynda Sanderson (I should explicitly mention the paper with Lynda and Phil McCann on relationship capital published in Journal of Economic Geography, of which I am particularly fond), with former VU PhD students Masood Gheasi and Guney Celbis; and with former Purdue PhD student Julia Beckhusen. Several of the New Zealand projects are jointly with Senior Fellows Dave Maré and Arthur Grimes at Motu Economic and Public Policy Research, New Zealand’s leading economic think-tank.
The European work on the economics of cultural diversity triggered a 2014-2020 mixed methods project in New Zealand, entitled Capturing the Diversity Dividend of Aotearoa New Zealand (CaDDANZ, pronounced cadence). Research on diversity impacts, immigrant integration and social capital development is likely to remain the main focus of my research in years to come, but new projects on the challenges of New Zealand’s largest city, Auckland, and on the future of smaller urban areas are on the horizon. This, combined with having accepted the Presidency of RSAI over the next two years, implies there is no shortage of interesting and challenging things to do in the years to come.
(Published on RSAI Newsletter 2016 November)