The Helpman Report

In the July issue of the Newsletter, we reported on the visit to the Society’s Annual Conference of an international team of economists led by Professor Elhanan Helpman of Harvard University as part of their preparation of an 'International Benchmarking Review of UK Economics'. Their Report was published in November 2008 and its main findings are summarised below.

The main finding of the Helpman Report is that economics research in the UK is exceptional by international standards, second only to the United States, and thriving. Moreover, UK economics research has high policy impact, based on top-quality applied work and strong relationships between the academic and policy communities.

‘First and foremost, the research achievements of UK scholars are exceptional by world standards; the UK economics profession is more prominent than any other country’s except for the United States. UK scholarship has been very influential in a number of important fields, such as labour economics, public economics, and economic development, and it has attained world leadership in microeconometrics.

‘While maintaining strength in the areas that are doing well is important, it is also important to strengthen a number of fields that are doing less well. The Panel feels that macroeconomics requires particular attention, because it is a core subject of the discipline and it is lacking in a number of dimensions in the UK. Although microeconomic theory is doing better than macroeconomics, it too needs improvement in order to fulfil its mission as a core subject.

‘Improvements of fields cannot be achieved by earmarked research funds alone; the remedy has to involve the recruitment of high-quality scholars. For this reason research funds should be tied to recruitment.

‘Curiosity-driven research, theoretical and empirical, should not be discouraged by the format of submissions of research proposals, such as the requirement of references from final users of research output. The ESRC needs to make a bigger effort to inform researchers that such references are not mandatory and should be provided only when appropriate.

‘The panel supports the move to a 2+2 format of post-graduation education. In addition, we recommend developing a support system that will provide talented PhD students with financial security during the entire period of their studies. The training of PhD students can be enhanced by co-operative networks of economic departments, and countrywide specialised PhD courses offered in the spring or summer.

‘Economic research in the UK is very influential outside academia and has a large impact on policy. This is a major achievement that results from the high-quality of applied work and the healthy relationships between researchers and policymakers.’

The review process was managed by a Steering Group composed of senior academics, funders and research users under the chairmanship of Professor Sir John Vickers (University of Oxford and President of the Royal Economic Society). Speaking for the Steering Group. Sir John responded that, ‘The Steering Group warmly welcomes this thorough and rigorous assessment of the state of economics in the UK, and is delighted with the panel’s positive endorsement of the strength of the discipline...All of the report’s recommendations will be considered fully, and where areas of relative weakness have been identified the organisations involved will work together to address them. We hope that the report will be debated by all those with an interest in the development of economics in the UK, and that it will provide a focus for extending the enormous contribution described by the international panel.’


1. Other members of the panel were Professors Manuel Arellano, CEMFI, Spain; Andreu Mas-Colell, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Spain; Hyun Shin, Princeton University; Guido Tabellini, IGIER, Università Bocconi, Italy; Philippe Weil ECARES, Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium.

2. The ESRC and the RES, in consultation with the Conference of Heads of University Departments of Economics (CHUDE), had agreed in 2007 to work in partnership to benchmark the quality and impact of research in the UK against international standards. This is the third in a series of ESRC sponsored assessments that is covering major social science disciplines in the UK.

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