How much is a topic?

… an Atlas blog post

Ian D. Clark, 29 January 2014

The primary building block of the Atlas of Public Policy and Management is the topic. As discussed in the Atlas Framework for Curricular Analysis, topics are the only content categories assigned exclusively to one or another of the 34 subjects that we use to delineate the field of public policy and management.

We Atlas editors currently use two topic categories – teaching topic and advisory topic – and we are considering adding a third – research topic. But what exactly are these things we call topics?

Remembering the fun that Kennedy School MPP 1972 students had in responding to our professors’ admonitions to quantify things in order to understand them better, here is a numerical characterization of topics.

In the Atlas a teaching topic is defined as “a coherent body of concepts and readings suitable for a single 3-hour class in an MPP or MPA program.”

This implies that today a Harvard MPP student will be taught 252 topics in the eighteen 14-week courses required for her degree. Using the Kennedy School’s domestic student budget numbers of $46,561 in annual tuition and fees and $25,711 in non-tuition costs, this works out to $574 per topic. Five hundred miles west and slightly to the north, a Toronto MPP student is being taught 192 topics in the sixteen 12-week courses required for graduation. Annual tuition for domestic students is $15,327 and if we use non-tuition costs figure of $20,000,* this works out to $368 per topic. If we include the contribution made by the province of Ontario in the form of its annual $9,000 per student grant for professional Master’s programs, this would bring the cost per topic for the Toronto MPP to $462.

A complete estimate of the costs from the consumer/funder perspective should include foregone income. This will vary substantially among individual students depending on how advanced they are in their careers when they enrol. If we assign a value of $30 per hour to the 3 hours in class and the 4.5 hours outside class that the average student takes to do the hundred-odd pages of required readings and/or problem set and essay writing associated with a class, this increases the cost of learning a topic by $210. The totals now become $799 per teaching topic at Harvard and $593 at Toronto.

From the producer perspective, if professors have annual salary and benefits costs of $200,000 and if faculty consume 2/3 of the institutional costs, and if professors spend 40 percent of their time teaching, and they teach 3 courses a year, the institutional cost of a course is $40,000 which works out to an annual cost per teaching topic of $2,857 at Harvard and $3,333 at Toronto.

Now let us consider advisory topics. In the Atlas we define an advisory topic as “a coherent body of practice advice and explanatory material provided to government in a report from an international governmental organization (IGO).” If the staff cost per year (including prorated costs of accommodation and other expenses) at IGOs and governments is $200,000 and each report requires 5 staff-years within the agency and the same number from member governments, then the cost of an IGO report is $2 million and, assuming two topics per report, the cost of an advisory topic is $1 million.

We are thinking of adding a third topic category in the Atlas called a research topic to help respond to a Call for Papers for a proposed special issue of the Policy Studies Journal entitled, “Exploring the Theoretical Nexus between Public Policy and Public Management.” A research topic could be defined for these purposes as “a coherent body of concepts, argument and references suitable for presentation at a scholarly conference or publication in a scholarly journal.” How much do research topics cost? If professors spend 40 percent of their time on research and produce 2 scholarly articles per year, then using the assumptions noted above, the cost per article would be $60,000. To make the numbers round, let us assume that it requires 16-17 articles to generate a settled idea of a new topic in public policy and management. This would imply that, like its advisory cousin, the cost of a research topic is $1 million.

So how much is a topic? Although these calculations are intended to be whimsical, the lesson to be drawn is the serious one that I assume my professors were trying to teach MPP students 43 years ago – a topic is something that has costs and requires choices. In a world of limited time and resources, we should think carefully about what topics we teach and what topics we research in our MPP and MPA programs.


*The Toronto numbers are in Canadian currency. The estimates of non-tuition costs, hours of study per class and foregone earnings are from an informal poll of Toronto MPP students in January 2014. There was high variation among students, with the range of study hours per class from 3.5 to 7 and of foregone income from $20 per hour for students with no previous professional work experience to several times that for students who had been in professional practice before enrolling in the program. If the proportion of Harvard students with prior work experience is higher than that at Toronto, its numbers for foregone income would be higher. The estimate of the provincial grant per MPP student comes from page 109 of Academic Reform: Policy Options for Improving the Quality and Cost-effectiveness of Undergraduate Education in Ontario, Clark, I.D., D. Trick and R. Van Loon, 2011.

Image: RepMan at, accessed 29 January 2014.