Dr. Luca Savorelli is currently the director of teaching of the School of Economics and Finance. He originally studied the economics of innovation during his PhD in Siena, Italy, later on becoming a health economist. In the last year of the programme, he relocated to the London School of Economics, where he only expected to spend a few months. However, since then, it has been almost 10 years he has been living in the United Kingdom. While at a networking event in London, Dr. Savorelli learned about a position at St Andrews. He came to visit, and quickly fell in love with the town and the economics department here. Maybe surprisingly for an economist, his students think of him as a great pianist. The most famous example that he uses in his lectures? Ciabatta bread. Interested in learning more about the man behind so many students’ admiration, The Saint sat down with Dr. Savorelli for an interview.
TS: How did your research career begin?
LS: When I finished my UG dissertation I decided that I didn’t want any further examination and I wanted to work. I applied for a PhD and was awarded a scholarship immediately after, so I didn’t have much time to look for other jobs. My recent research has involved real firms, so that’s a way for me to see what’s going on in the real world. I’ve worked with firms in a variety of fields, including firms in the healthcare sector. I really appreciate the fact that I get to be working in both academia and professional industries as the two complement each other through knowledge exchange.
TS: What do you like most about teaching finance and economic policy at St Andrews?
LS: My students, of course. I get very good questions all the time. Teaching economics is both difficult and easy at the same time. On the one hand, it’s easy because we are discussing contemporary issues – we’re still in the aftermath of a big financial crisis so economics helps clarify things. On the other hand, it’s difficult because economics is a dry science. Certain subjects have more of a story, while for others it’s harder to draw context. It can be a challenge to make economics interesting at times. I try to crack some jokes, but I’m not very good at it (laugh).
TS: What’s your favourite memory from a lecture?
LS: I have a degree in piano performance, so one time I promised my students that I would play a piece during the last lecture. But just before I finished the piece, the fire alarm went off. One student recorded it and went viral amongst my students.
TS: What do you find most exciting about Economics? Are there particular areas in the field that interest you?
LS: I think economics really twists the way you see the world and help you understand current events in depth. Economics was born as a branch of philosophy – it provides a more sophisticated description of human beings and offers insights into the way they behave, which is partially why I find behavioral economics fascinating. One finds its application in our everyday lives.
TS: I saw that your past research papers had a focus on health economics and industrial organisation. Can you elaborate more on your past papers?
LS: My core research in economics was about obesity and eating behaviour. The first part came from my dissertation – it was a theoretical model where we studied the social pressure of pushing people to be thin. It was picked up by the press which is quite unusual for a piece of theoretical work. We also did some research to find the effect on people’s eating behaviour when they quit smoking. Previous research had shown that when there was a drop in smoking, there was an increase in obesity. When we started researching we didn’t know what to expect because there were mixed findings, but we were happy that we had a story that was not as straightforward and that it had some policy implications. A few years ago, I started working in field experiments, especially with care homes to provide quality service.
TS: What research are you currently working on, and what would you like to further study in the future?
LS: I have a very interesting project with children in lower, middle high schools in Italy from ages 11-13. We study a programme called City Council of Children, similar to the class representative system here. There’s a school mayor and an elected cabinet of students. This was introduced to develop a sense of democracy in children. We want to find the effect on children’s behaviour in school, their marks, and their careers. There’s not much research on younger pupils, and this is very important. They will learn about fairness and doing public good from a young age.
TS: Is St Andrews very different from University of Bologna? What do you enjoy most about teaching at St Andrews?
LS: Italian universities are very different from UK universities. Students are somewhat more independent in Italy. Here you can talk to your professors and there’s a variety of assessments, versus in Italy there were many oral examinations which could be challenging. I still work with the economics department in Bologna and many of my co-authors are from the there. I absolutely love the environment of St Andrews. It’s a small city all centered around the university, but at the same time you don’t feel like you’re in a campus in the middle of nowhere. I really like the gothic look of the city especially when it’s foggy.
TS: When you are not busy working on economics, what do you do for fun?
LS: I go to the sports centre gym, where I see many of my students. Sometimes they say hi to me, sometimes they don’t (laugh). I was a volleyball player but I don’t have time now since work keeps me late in the office. I also play the piano and like to play Dungeons and Dragons when I’m with a group of friends back in Italy.
TS: Do you prefer living in Scotland or Italy?
LS: Winter in Scotland and summer in Italy. Not many people know this, but it gets even colder in Italy during the winter. As for food, you can find the ingredients to cook Italian food yourself in the supermarket. Nardini has good Italian food too, but I get the best result when I cook myself.
TS: What advice do you have for students who want to begin researching economics and would like to pursue a postgraduate degree in the field?
LS: Study econometrics, mathematics, statistics, and learn to programme. Once you have a solid base, you can begin researching. You could do an undergraduate research assistantship since you would work with a professor and get a monetary reward, which will make you feel like you’re working a real job. Sometimes research can be tough. When you’re working with data, a large part of that is cleaning up the data. There is huge work in creating the data set and making it suitable for use. It’s a long process.
TS: What books would you suggest to students who are interested in learning more about economics?
LS: Richard Thaler’s and Cass Sunstein’s Nudge is a great classic. I don’t know if I agree with everything in this book. It’s sometimes simplistic, and I am not sure if their proposals work with complex policy issues, but there’s some truth in it. The challenge is how to study the soft data – people’s behaviour and intrinsic motivation. This book introduces you to this concept. The classics of economic thought are great too. Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nation is quite sophisticated in thought. I would recommend going to the original sources.