Pietro Biroli

Who: I am an assistant professor of economics interested in health and human capital formation.

What: My research fields are health economics, social science genomics, and applied micro.

Where: RTDb at the University of Bologna, department of economics.

Why: For more info, you can contact me at pietro.biroli [at] unibo.it

My CV, google scholar profile, ORCid, and github

My twitter @pietrobiroli

Bio

I am an assistant professor of economics (RTDb) at the University of Bologna. I obtained my PhD in economics from the University of Chicago, and was UBS Foundation Assistant Professor of Applied Economics at the University of Zurich. I am a research affiliate at the Jacobs Center for Productive Youth Development at UZH, IZA, fRDB, HCEO, CHILD, CAGE, CEPR, and CESifo.

My research focuses on the early origins and life cycle evolution of health and human capital. I explore the importance of genetics, family investment, and early childhood interventions in explaining health and economic inequality. With my work, I aim to understand the mechanisms through which effective policy interventions and optimal choices of investment can help mitigate innate inequalities and promote health and human capital development.

More broadly, I am interested in Health Economics, Applied Econometrics, and Social Science Genetics.

Publications

Baranov, V., Frost, A., Hagaman, A., Simmons, J. G., Manzoor, M. S., Biroli, P., Bhalotra, S., Rahman, A., S., Sikander, S., Maselko, J. Effects of a maternal psychosocial intervention on hair derived biomarkers of HPA axis function in mothers and children in rural Pakistan. SSM - Mental Health, 100082. (2022)

Biroli, P., Bosworth, S., Della Giusta, M., Di Girolamo, A., Jaworska, S., & Vollen, J. Family Life in Lockdown. Frontiers in Psychology, 12, 3259 (2021)

(HCEO working paper, data and code, slides, media: Altmetric)

Demange, P. , Malanchini, M., Mallard, T., Biroli P., Cox, S., Grotzinger, A.D., Tucker-Drob E.M., Abdellaoui A., Arseneault, L., Caspi, A., Corcoran, D., Domingue B., Mitchell C., van Bergen E., Boomsma D.I., Harris K.M. Ip H.F., Moffitt, T.E., Poulton, R., Prinz, J., Karen Sugden, K., Wertz J., Williams, B., de Zeeuw E.L. , Belsky D.W., Harden K.P., Nivard M. G. Investigating the Genetic Architecture of Non-Cognitive Skills Using GWAS-by-Subtraction. Nature Genetics. 53, 35–44 (2021)

(FAQ, factsheet, bioRxiv working paper, code, tutoria for GWAS by subtraction , noncog and cog sumstats, media: Altmetric)

Biroli, P., Boneva, T., Raja, A., Rauh, C. Parental Beliefs about Returns to Child Health Investments. Journal of Econometrics, ISSN 0304-4076. (2020).

(IZA working paper, data and code)

Maselko, J., Sikander, S., Turner, E. L., Bates, L. M., Ahmad, I., Atif, N., Baranov, V., Bhalotra, S., Bibi, A., Bibi, T., Bilal, S., Biroli, P., Chung, E., Gallis, J. A., Hagaman, A., Jamil, A., Lemasters, K., & Donnell, K. O. Effectiveness of a peer-delivered , psychosocial intervention on maternal depression and child development at 3 years postnatal : a cluster randomised trial in Pakistan. The Lancet Psychiatry, 7(9), 775–787. (2020).

(media: PlumX)

Baranov, V., Bhalotra, S., Biroli, P., & Maselko, J. Maternal Depression, Women’s Empowerment, and Parental Investment: Evidence from a Randomized Controlled Trial. American Economic Review, 110 (3): 824-59. (2020).

(IZA working paper, data and code, slides, econimate video, Media: The Guardian, The Economist, AER Highlights)

Maselko, J., Hagaman, A. K., Bates, L. M., Bhalotra, S., Biroli, P., Gallis, J. A., O'Donnel, K., Sikander, S., Rahman, A. Father involvement in the first year of life: Associations with maternal mental health and child development outcomes in rural Pakistan. Social Science & Medicine, 112421, ISSN 0277-9536. (2019).

(media: Altmetric)

Karlsson Linnér, R., Biroli, P., Kong, E., Meddens, S. F. W., Wedow, R., Fontana, M. A., … Beauchamp, J. P. Genome-wide association analyses of risk tolerance and risky behaviors in over 1 million individuals identify hundreds of loci and shared genetic influences. Nature Genetics, 51: 245–257. (2019).

(FAQ, bioRxiv working paper, sumstats, media: Altmetric)

Biroli, P., Del Boca, D., Heckman, J. J., Heckman, L. P., Koh, Y. K., Kuperman, S., Mokdan, S., Pronzazo, C. D., Ziff, A. L. Evaluation of the Reggio Approach to Early Childhood Education. Research in Economics, 72(1): 1–32. (2018).

(IZA working paper, appendix, code. media: PlumX)


Biroli, P., Mourre, G., & Turrini, A. The adjustment mechanism in the Euro Area. Intereconomics, 48(3), 159–166. (2013).

Buti, M., Turrini, A., van den Noord, P., & Biroli, P. Reforms and Re-elections in OECD Countries. Economic Policy, 25(61), 61–116. (2010)

Buti, M., Turrini, A., van den Noord, P., & Biroli, P. Defying the ‘Juncker Curse’: Can Reformist Governments Be Re-elected? Empirica, 36(1), 65–100. (2009).

Working Papers

Beyond Barker: Infant Mortality at Birth and Ischaemic Heart Disease in Older Age (arxiv)

with Samuel Baker, Hans van Kippersluis, Stephanie von Hinke

Abstract: Adverse conditions in early life can have consequential impacts on individuals' health in older age. In one of the first papers on this topic, Barker and Osmond 1986 show a strong positive relationship between infant mortality rates in the 1920s and ischaemic heart disease in the 1970s. We go 'beyond Barker', first by showing that this relationship is robust to the inclusion of local geographic area fixed effects, but not family fixed effects. Second, we explore whether the average effects conceal underlying heterogeneity: we examine if the infant mortality effect offsets or reinforces one's genetic predisposition for heart disease. We find considerable heterogeneity that is robust to within-area as well as within-family analyses. Our findings show that the effects of one's early life environments mainly affect individuals with the highest genetic risk for developing heart disease. Put differently, in areas with the lowest infant mortality rates, the effect of one's genetic predisposition effectively vanishes. These findings suggest that advantageous environments can cushion one's genetic risk of developing heart disease.

The Economics and Econometrics of Gene-Environment Interplay (arxiv)

with Titus J. Galama, Stephanie von Hinke, Hans van Kippersluis, Cornelius A. Rietveld, Kevin Thom

Abstract: Economists and social scientists have debated the relative importance of nature (one's genes) and nurture (one's environment) for decades, if not centuries. This debate can now be informed by the ready availability of genetic data in a growing number of social science datasets. This paper explores the potential uses of genetic data in economics, with a focus on estimating the interplay between nature (genes) and nurture (environment). We discuss how economists can benefit from incorporating genetic data into their analyses even when they do not have a direct interest in estimating genetic effects. We argue that gene--environment (GxE) studies can be instrumental for (i) testing economic theory, (ii) uncovering economic or behavioral mechanisms, and (iii) analyzing treatment effect heterogeneity, thereby improving the understanding of how (policy) interventions affect population subgroups. We introduce the reader to essential genetic terminology, develop a conceptual economic model to interpret gene-environment interplay, and provide practical guidance to empirical researchers.

Cohort Profile: Genetic data in the German Socio-Economic Panel Innovation Sample (Gene-SOEP) (bioRxiv)

with Philipp D Koellinger, Aysu Okbay, Hyeokmoon Kweon, Annemarie Schweinert, Richard Karlsson Linner, Jan Goebel, David Richter, Lisa Reiber, Bettina Maria Zweck, Daniel Belsky, Rui Mata, Elliot M Tucker-Drob, K. Paige Harden, Gert Wagner, Ralph Hertwig


Abstract: The German Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP) serves a global research community by providing representative annual longitudinal data of private households in Germany. The sample provides a detailed life course perspective based on a rich collection of information about living conditions, socioeconomic status, family relationships, personality, values, preferences, and health. We collected genetic data from 2,598 individuals in the SOEP Innovation Sample, yielding the first genotyped sample that is representative of the entire German population (Gene-SOEP). The Gene-SOEP sample is a longitudinal study that includes 107 full-sibling pairs, 501 parent-offspring pairs, and 152 parent-offspring trios that are overlapping with the parent-offspring pairs. We constructed a repository of 66 polygenic indices in the Gene-SOEP sample based on results from well-powered genome-wide association studies. The Gene-SOEP data provides a valuable resource to study individual differences, inequalities, life-course development, health, and interactions between genetic predispositions and the environment.

Moral Hazard Heterogeneity: Genes and Insurance Influence Smoking after a Health Shock (recent version, bioRxiv, code, slides, podcast)

with Laura Zwyssig


Abstract: Decision-making in the realm of health behaviors, such as smoking or drinking, is influenced both by biological factors, such as genetic predispositions, as well as environmental factors, such as financial liquidity and health insurance status. We show how the choice of smoking after a cardio-vascular health shock is jointly determined by the interaction between these biological and environmental constraints. Individuals who suffer a health shock when uninsured are 25.6 percentage points more likely to reduce smoking, but this is true only for those who have a low index of genetic predisposition to smoking. Individuals with a low index of genetic predisposition are more strategic and flexible in their behavioral response to an external shock. This differential elasticity of response depending on your genetic variants is evidence of individual-level heterogeneity in moral hazard. These results suggest that genetic heterogeneity is a factor that should be considered when evaluating the importance and fairness of health insurance policies.

Genes, Pubs, and Drinks: Gene-environment interplay and alcohol licensing policy in the United Kingdom.

with Christian Zünd


Abstract: Are we genetically destined to behave poorly, or can a well-designed policy and a nurturing environment prevail over our instincts? This paper analyzes the interplay of public policy and individuals' genetic endowments, demonstrating how people's genetic propensity to drink moderates their consumption behavior in response to changes in alcohol availability and licensing policy. We combine data from the UK Biobank with geo-coded data on pubs and retailers, as well as data on alcohol licensing from local authorities in England and Wales. This allows us to construct a fine-grained measure of local alcohol availability for each one of the approximately 500,000 participants in the UK Biobank. Our results show that individuals with a high genetic propensity to drink select into environments with easier access to alcohol, react less to changes in the availability of alcohol, and respond less to restrictive licensing. Thus, we show that a supply-focused licensing policy to mitigate alcohol abuse can clash with individual predispositions and might exacerbate genetic inequality, suggesting the need for a more targeted approach.

Using Obviously-Related Instrumental Variables to Increase the Predictive Power of Polygenic Scores (bioRxiv working paper, code)

with Hans van Kippersluis, Titus J. Galama, Stephanie von Hinke, S. Fleur W. Meddens, Dilnoza Muslimova, Rita Pereira, Cornelius A. Rietveld


Abstract: Polygenic scores have become the workhorse for empirical analyses in social-science genetics. Because a polygenic score is constructed using the results of finite-sample Genome-Wide Association Studies (GWASs), it is a noisy approximation of the true latent genetic predisposition to a certain trait. The conventional way of boosting the predictive power of polygenic scores is to increase the GWAS sample size by meta-analyzing GWAS results of multiple cohorts. In this paper, we challenge this convention. Through simulations, we show that Instrumental Variable (IV) regression using two polygenic scores from independent GWAS samples outperforms the typical Ordinary Least Squares (OLS) model employing a single meta-analysis based polygenic score in terms of bias, root mean squared error, and statistical power. We verify the empirical validity of these simulations by predicting educational attainment (EA) and height in a sample of siblings from the UK Biobank. We show that IV regression between-families approaches the SNP-based heritabilities, while compared to meta-analysis applying IV regression within-families provides a tighter lower bound on the direct genetic effect. IV estimation improves the predictive power of polygenic scores by 12% (height) to 22% (EA). Our findings suggest that measurement error is a key explanation for hidden heritability (i.e., the difference between SNP-based and GWAS-based heritability), and that it can be overcome using IV regression. We derive the practical rule of thumb that IV outperforms OLS when the correlation between the two polygenic scores used in IV regression is larger than √(10 / (N+10)), with N the sample size of the prediction sample.

Cognition, personality, and in-group favouritism among children

with Amalia Di Girolamo, Michalis Drouvelis, Matteo Pinna


Abstract: Understanding the forces determining social preferences is a central topic in the behavioural and the social sciences. In this paper, we focus on how IQ and Big-5 personality traits relate to the development of children’s cooperative behaviour, either in-group (class peers) or out-group (school peers). In a lab-in-the-field prisoner dilemma experiment with elementary school children aged 7-11, we find that the average cooperation rate is 9.7 percentage points higher for in-group vs out-group. Children with high IQ are 42 percentage points less likely to cooperate with outsiders. Conscientious, extrovert, and open to experience children are also 14 to 20 percentage points less likely to cooperate with outsiders. In-group favouritism is not constant over the ages but develops in children starting from about age 10, suggesting that social preferences and group identity are acquired over time and not necessarily an innate behaviour.

Childhood socioeconomic status moderates genetic predispositions for peak smoking (bioRxiv working paper)

with Laura Bierut, Titus Galama, and Kevin Thom


Abstract: Smoking is the leading cause of preventable disease and death in the U.S., and it is strongly influenced both by genetic predisposition and childhood socioeconomic status (SES). Using genetic variants exhibiting credible and robust associations with smoking, we construct polygenic risk scores (PGS) and evaluate whether childhood SES mediates genetic risk in determining peak-cigarette consumption in adulthood. We find a substantial protective effect of childhood SES for those genetically at risk of smoking: adult smokers who grew up in high-SES households tend to smoke roughly the same amount of cigarettes per day at peak (~23 for low and ~25 for high genetic risk individuals, or about 8% more), while individuals from low-SES backgrounds tend to smoke substantially more if genetically at risk (~25 for low and ~32 for high genetic risk individuals, or about 28% more).

Genetic and Economic Interaction in Health Formation: The Case of Obesity. (working paper)

Abstract: Small genetic differences at birth confer a comparative advantage in health and human capital formation, and can lead to substantial inequality in long term social and economic outcomes. I develop a structural model of health and human capital formation illustrating the dynamic interaction between genetic inheritance and investments in health over the life cycle. Genetic heterogeneity across individuals can change the utility cost of investment and the production function of health, shifting the incentives to invest in healthy habits. Focusing on Body-Mass-Index (BMI) as a measure of poor health, I consider physical activity and food intake as investments in health, and I evaluate their interaction with specific variants in FTO and other genes associated with BMI in Genome-Wide Association Studies. Applying this model in two different datasets, one of British adolescents and one of US adults, I find that Gene-Environment interaction plays a pivotal role in the evolution of BMI. Food intake has a stronger impact on BMI for those individuals with a particular genetic makeup, and yet they tend to display a higher demand for food. The association of variants in the FTO gene with the hypothalamic regulation of food intake gives a biological foundation to the observed differences in healthy investments. This analysis provides an economic framework of health and human capital formation that integrates recent findings in genetics and molecular biology and sheds light on the interdependence between genes and economic choices of investment.

Health and Skill Formation in Early Childhood (UBS wp)

Abstract:This paper analyzes the developmental origins and the evolution of health, cognitive, and noncognitive skills during early childhood, from age 0 to 5. We explicitly model the dynamic interactions of health with the child's behavior and cognitive skills, as well as the role of parental investment. A dynamic factor model corrects for the presence of measurement error in the proxy for the latent traits. Using data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), we find that children's capabilities strongly interact and build on each other: health is an important determinant of early noncognitive development; in turn noncognitive skills have a positive impact on the evolution of both health and cognitive functions; on the other side, the effect of cognitive abilities on health is negligible. Furthermore, all facets of human capital display a high degree of persistence. Finally, mother's investments are an important determinant of the child's health, cognitive, and noncognitive development early in life.

Projects

  • ESSGN: European Social Science Genetics Network

with Titus Galama, Stephanie von Hinke, Nicola Barban, et al. --- Funded by Horizon Europe, Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions

First Conference, Bologna 2022

  • GEIGHEI: Gene-Environment Interplay in the Generation of Health and Education Inequalities (github repo)

with Hans van Kippersluis, Stephanie von Hinke, et al. --- Funded by NORFACE DIAL

  • The Behavioral Economics of Breastfeeding Encouragement (BEBE) Cohort Study

with Anne Brenøe, Claudio Schilter, and Xiaoyue Shan --- Funded by SNSF (189087) and Larsson Rosenquist Foundation

with Joanna Maselko, Victoria Baranov, Sonia Bhalotra, et al. --- Funded by NIH and CEDIL

  • Caleidoscuola: web platform for research projects in Italian Schools

  • STEM-UP! Cooperation and Cognitive Abilities in Primary Schools

with Demis Basso, Antonella Brighi, Amalia Di Girolamo --- Funded by Benecare Foundation and SNSF 197588