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Is UK academic social science following a work model others are already discarding?

Mark Thoma‘s thoughtful article “New Forms of Communication and the Public Mission of Economics: Overcoming the Great Disconnect” (04 November 2011) describes the factors that, through the 1980s and after, led to academic economics disengaging from its long-standing public mission: Addressing the questions important to society.

Once it started to withdraw, academic economics became ever more self-contained and self-affirming. Along that path these developments encountered no reality check or market test. The profession grew to have no way to ask how the questions it addressed might matter to anyone, to anyone that is beyond those inside the profession itself involved in posing and answering those questions. Instead, the profession developed a disdain for those outside it – government economists, business economists, journalists, the general public – who were concerned with matters it considered mundane. Academic economics saw a choice between only two extremes: one, that of super-streamlined professionalism and the other, that of ambulance-chasing opportunism, and it convinced all the PhD students it could find there was only one way to go. The system faced no countervailing pressure to change.

Economics no longer had a public mission; it had turned its back on the rest of society. Thoma’s earlier op-ed from 26 July 2011 pointed out:

“How much confidence would you have in the medical profession if the teaching faculty in medical schools had very little experience actually treating patients, and very little connection to – even a lack of respect for – the practitioners in the field? Would your confidence be improved if medical research had little to do with the questions that are important to the doctors trying to serve patients?

Fortunately, however, this disengagement has begun to turn around, not least since the global economic crisis following 2008 but also, a little before then, through academic economists – top-flight respected researchers – resuming communicating again directly with the public. In Thoma’s analysis, it is blogging – with all the attendant openness, immediacy, and direct connection with the readership (facilitated by a supporting information and communications technology) – that has brought economics back to its public mission of understanding, explaining, and convincing on questions that matter. This does not replace research. But it breathes life back into the latter and suggests why certain kinds of research have genuine validity.

The inroads from there, moreover, have allowed economists again to have the confidence to engage openly with journalists, with policy-makers, and with a suspicious public nonetheless eager to learn.  This not only improves research but raises economic and financial literacy.  We cannot pretend to value the ideals of liberal democracy if we we don’t think it important that the general public understands better what happens around them.

Thoma’s examples are almost entirely US, and that is appropriate. That is where change has been greatest.

But this makes me wonder if, in the UK in our own headlong RAE/REF-directed rush to academic excellence, we are now following the path that, in Thoma’s analysis, is already old and tired – i.e., from the pre-blogging era. What passes for hiring/firing discussion in many economics departments is rumour mixed with currency: a researcher with four publications in the top 4* journals is worth, in UK government REF-derived funds, £100,000 a year. So hiring someone in that category is, upon amortization, a half-million pound proposition. Some departments might even mortgage an expensive hire like that today, discounting against REF future income prospects. (Does anyone else think this resembles a subprime mortgage deal?) Impact studies might count – so, e.g., if some social scientists developed a new pharmaceutical assembly line – that might raise your REF income.

Engagement with the public? “Sorry, that’s not in the REF. The 4* Americans don’t do that, you see…”

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12 responses to “Is UK academic social science following a work model others are already discarding?

  1. Pingback: Economist's View: Links for 2011-11-11

  2. David Walker 2011.11.12 at 12:55

    …which is tantamount to saying that ‘impact’ (as allegedly embedded in the REF and as demanded by the research councils as a condition of their grants) won’t mitigate the inwardness of the discipline — despite the fuss that (some) academic social scientists have made about impact measures. Danny also touches on a puzzle. Why, on the watch of governments evidently concerned that social science should be more relevant (from M Thatcher onwards), public funding of research should have allowed the discipline to push further and further away from the world of policy and practice.
    A bigger question is about the public. Was it inevitable, given asymmetries of knowledge and understanding between the public and academics, that the public should know so little about this movement away from the public sphere. Danny says that public economic and financial literacy might have grown pari passu with the engagement of economists. I wonder. Don’t we need special efforts to ensure public literacy?

  3. Danny Quah 2011.11.13 at 08:44

    Added effort for public literacy in social science can only help. I’d be happy, though, if for now we take even the first few steps in that direction.

    There are, of course, social scientists who do reach out and engage, and therefore aid public understanding. But, in the language of North Americans, “they do it on their own dime”.

  4. Jackeline Daniello 2011.11.14 at 15:21

    It?s hard to find knowledgeable people on this matter, however you sound like you understand what you?re talking about! Thanks

  5. Pingback: That was the weekend that was « occasional links & commentary

  6. Pingback: The REF follows a model which ignores academic engagement with the public and is already being rejected by US researchers for being ‘outdated’. | Impact of Social Sciences

  7. stevenhill 2011.11.23 at 14:55

    But the REF does include public engagement…

    There are many ways in which research may have underpinned impact, including but not limited to:
    Impacts on, for example, public awareness, attitudes, understanding or behaviour that arose from engaging the public with research.

    From the REF guidance on submissions [pdf], page 30

    • Danny Quah 2011.12.03 at 08:35

      I had thought my post was more about how the economics profession works, its unspoken conventions, and the results that thus emerge.

      But fair enough, many readers have interpreted the post to remark on REF – and I did make mention of that.

      I agree – absolutely, REF does include public engagement. My understanding (via a colleague deeply embedded frontline in REF work) is that any potentially successful economics/social science impact study needs to answer four questions :

      Q1: What happened? – A decline in elderly poverty? An improvement in participation in higher education? Increased economic growth?
      Q2: So what? – Why does it matter – what is the reach, the significance, etc.
      Q3: On what research was the impact based?
      Q4: What are the links between the research and the claimed impact?

      Public engagement is viewed to have traction in Q4. Obviously, simply having, say, a twitter feed doesn’t quite cut it.

      *Not* part of this is, say, “A marked increase of economic literacy, the kind critically needed in well-functioning liberal democracies.”

  8. Danny Quah 2011.12.03 at 08:55

    Regarding conventions in the economics profession, Raquel Fernandez (who works on culture in economic performance) made a number of interesting points in her Straddler interview http://www.thestraddler.com/20118/piece4.php (October 2011), some in disagreement with, some supporting, the position laid out above.

  9. Pingback: Is UK academic social science following a work model others are already discarding?

  10. Pingback: Links for 2011-11-11-Economic Issue | Coffee At Joe's

  11. Danny Quah 2012.01.21 at 08:23

    Economics Nobelist Paul Krugman weighs in: http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/01/17/open-science-and-the-econoblogosphere/ “Journals serving as tombstones” – simply brilliant. But how does the new generation get validation when the old people, apart from those like Krugman, don’t “get” the new tools? That inner group of 30 with the yellow jackets isn’t going to just roll over without a fight, even if doing so might ultimately be good for the profession.

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