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Category Archives: dissemination

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…”

Successful modern technology: Demand trumps supply

Successful technology in economic growth is not just about pushing out the frontier; it’s about bringing everyone along. Put another way, it’s about raising the average, not just the very top of the distribution.

This lesson has been with humanity ever since at least 14th-century China’s epic fail, although admittedly most of the time we are oblivious of it, given scholarly obsession with technology having to do with only supply-side productivity.

Almost exactly a year ago, Apple overtook Microsoft to become the world’s most valuable technology company (and the world’s second most valuable company, period). Last month, Apple overtook Google to become the world’s most valuable brand.

John Ross (30 May 2011) puts in context what is now simultaneously the world’s most valuable technology company and the world’s most valuable brand:

“Apple of course, by most industries’ standards, is a high tech firm. But Apple is not famous for fundamental technological research. It did not create the laser – as did AT&T and the Hughes Aircraft Corporation – or the transistor – as did AT&T and Texas Instruments. It was not a company that produced the world’s first microprocessor, as did Intel – a company continuing to demonstrate technological prowess in the recently announced revolutionary three dimensional Tri-Gate microprocessor.”


“Apple’s outstanding skill – shown in its series of world beating products stretching from the Macintosh, through iPod, iPhone to iPad – is to mass produce products which the user can individualize.”

Now, for some observers, that final phrase might come as a bit of a let-down. What, not whizz-bang tech that you might find only in Iron Man’s armor, or some spiffy widget that makes assembly lines run faster? No.

Moreover, the statement is not even correct. For the more technical of the IT crowd, Apple’s products are the exact opposite of customizable. Compared to Linux, say, Apple’s OS is closed; and compared to other computing boxes, Apple’s hardware can be pried open only by simultaneously breaking an explicit legal agreement. Customization of the iPhone via jailbreaking is sanctioned only by the Library of Congress, not by Apple itself.

But there lies the nugget of truth for why technology now is so much more fun and in-your-face for so many: For the average user, Apple products are customizable enough.

Consumer tastes, not the needs of raising industrial productivity, provide the leading force shaping modern technological development. Demand trumps supply.

Reading and writing

Technical writing brings a sense of personal accomplishment. It puts food on the table. It is part of my official work. It is what I need to do every day. And, I hope, it has some impact on what happens around me, whether in advancing science or in improving how society works. No, really, I’m not proud; I can live with either. Yet other work—not completely random of course but related to what I do (e.g., in Newsweek [December 2005] or on BBC Panorama [November 2004]) although not in my official job description—bring something else. People you didn’t think would be interested in what you say end up touched somehow. People all over the world reach out to you. They want to understand too. They figure you’ve shed some light on their concerns and their worries. They tell you what it means to them, what you’ve said.

Maybe exactly how much we academics get paid in our official jobs just isn’t that important, when we have been gifted with such opportunity and when -rightly or wrongly- so many people out there feel what we do matters to them. Then again, however, Steven Spielberg has all this too, and gets paid a lot more than academics do. But, of course, he has to do that 24/7, and can’t retreat into technical writing.


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