Some Evidence on the Future of Economics

Andrew Oswald and Hilda Ralsmark of Warwick University collect and study the CVs of 112 assistant professors in the top ten American departments of economics, and treat these as a glimpse of the future. They find evidence of a remarkable brain-drain from other nations and that the great majority of these assistant professors are doing empirical rather than theoretical work. The findings are examined alongside forecasts made in the 1991 Centenary issue of the Economic Journal on ‘The Future of Economics’. Thanks go to Amanda Goodall for helpful discussions.

Other items related to this theme, published in the Newsletter, include:
Teaching evidence-based economics (October 2013)
The rediscovery of Classical economics (July 2013)
Teaching economics after the crisis (April 2013)
What’s the use of economics (October 2012)
ESRC international benchmarking review (April 2008)
Economics should look eastward (October 2006)
Jochen Runde replies ( October 2006)

As part of a larger study of elite scientists, we have been collecting information on young American economists. This was done by collating, and examining the patterns in, the CVs of all assistant professors in the top-10 departments in the US. We treat these individuals as data points. Arguably, they help give us a glimpse of the future.1

We find evidence of a severe brain drain — a funnelling of talent into the United States — at the bachelor-degree level. The typical assistant professor has a BSc from outside the US (though a PhD from inside the US). Put loosely, three quarters of young American economists are not Americans. Contrary to dark assessments of the state of academic economics — including some in the 1991 ‘The Future of Economics’ centenary issue of the Economic Journal, reprinted as a set of essays in Hey (1992)) — the great majority of these young economists are doing empirical research. Of our 112 researchers, relatively few do deductive theory. Many commentators who criticise economists as obsessively mathematical and un-empirical have a view of economics that is now out-of-date. The future of economics in the elite American universities is likely to be heavily applied. We show also that the male-to-female ratio among assistant professors is now approximately 3 to 1, and that the most-studied areas of economics are macroeconomics, econometrics, and labour economics (though these days this encompasses topics only obliquely related to labour markets).

Our results seem potentially of interest to those concerned with debates such as that articulated in Morgan (1988). He demonstrated, and worried openly about, the fact that half of the articles published in the American Economic Review and the Economic Journal contained no data. He found that in physics journals the number was just 12 per cent and in chemistry approximately zero.2 Our numbers may also be relevant to discussions about the state of the European and American economics professions (Machin and Oswald 2000; Neary et al 2003; Laband and Tollison 2003; Oswald 2007) and about the brain drain (Saint-Paul 2004).

Higher education is big business. Approximately 2.1 million European Union students graduated in the year 2000 compared to 2.07 million in the US. Despite this, the EU employs many fewer researchers per 1,000 workers (5.4 per cent) in the labour force compared to the US (8.7 per cent) (Woods 2003). The trans-Atlantic drain is fairly small and has been estimated to be 0.5 to 1 per cent (Saint-Paul 2004). Nevertheless, these are top performers within their fields. When only considering the United States labour force with doctoral degrees in the Science and Engineering field, 29 per cent of those conducting R&D are foreign-born (Johnson and Regets 1998).

In 2001, the European Council of Ministers adopted ‘The Barcelona Objective’, stating that all EU members should spend a minimum of 3 per cent of GDP on research by 2010 (EC 2002). At that point, the EU was estimated to spend 1.9 per cent, compared to the US’s value of 2.8 per cent. This strategy was meant to create 400,000 new jobs for European scientists every year (Woods 2003). Yet, by 2003, only a few countries had met the criteria. The gap between EU and US research spending continues to widen.

Some evidence
We gather primary data on assistant professors from ten of the highest-ranked economics departments in the US. The departments were chosen using

Our data set was compiled in January/February 2007. In total, we obtained biographies (usually by reading people’s CVs published on the web) on 112 assistant professors. Stanford University has the highest number in the sample with 16 and the University of Chicago the fewest with 6 assistant professors. In our data, there are 26 women.

We wished to document both the research areas and research styles of the economists. The following classification was used. If fewer (more) than 25 per cent of a person’s papers used data, he or she was defined as a theoretical (empirical) researcher. Otherwise, the person was assigned to an intermediate category of someone doing both theory and empirics. This type of information is missing for three assistant professors, one in Harvard, Stanford and New York University respectively, which decreases our effective sample size to 119. People’s main areas of research were recorded. Data on gender were also collected.

The results reveal ex post a striking brain drain: only 25 per cent of the sample had obtained their first degree in the US and 87 per cent got their Ph.D there. Assistant-professor positions are not evenly distributed between the genders: 24 per cent are female and 76 per cent male.

Purely theoretical work is uncommon. Almost half of these economists focus on empirical research; one third do a mixture of theory and applied work; only one fifth do entirely, or almost entirely, purely theoretical research (Figure 1). Closer inspection finds a lot of work that touches other social sciences, plenty of gathering of primary data,3 and much evidence of laboratory and field experiments.

The 10 most popular research areas are listed in Table 2. The full list of areas is available on request. We find that the three most popular fields are macroeconomics, econometrics and labour economics.

We hope these simple data might be of interest to those concerned with the state of academic economics, with long-range academic planning, and with brain-drain issues.4 Our main findings are the following:

• In economics there exists a remarkable brain-drain, after the bachelor-degree, towards the United States.
• The 112 assistant professors in our sample are heavily involved in empirical research. In a sense, this fact runs contrary to longstanding worries expressed by authors such as Morgan (1988).
• Macroeconomics, econometrics and labour economics are the dominant fields.
• Approximately one quarter of these young economists are female.

Finally, we found it valuable to sit down with our results and open them up on the left-hand side of the desk while turning the pages of the interesting Hey (1992) volume on the right-hand side of the desk. Some of the latter essays, which aimed to forecast the profession to come, have weathered well in 15 years. Alvin Roth, for example, looks prescient5 when he says: ‘I anticipate that experimental economics will play a growing role…’ Milton Friedman’s essay is modest about economists’ achievements and frank about the role of technical expertise: ‘Again and again, I have read articles written primarily in mathematics, in which the central conclusions and reasoning could readily have been restated in English, and the mathematics relegated to an appendix.’ Although he may not have foreseen that a psychologist was soon to win the Nobel prize in economics, far-sightedness is found too in the words6 of Edmond Malinvaud: ‘Psychologists, sociologists, and political scientists will offer us a rich body of evidence…Eventually the profession will find these contributions useful and even palatable.’


1. We do not focus on the US to downplay the vitality and importance of young European scholars. Rather, our gathering of data stemmed from a project designed to measure international flows of scientists into the United States.

2. Oswald (1991) was less pessimistic: it showed that the percentage of Economic Journal papers using micro data had risen quite strongly through time.

3. Perhaps surprisingly, almost no contributor to the 1991 Centenary Issue mentions the need for economists more often to gather their own primary data. Morgan (1988), however, does emphasise this.

4. Later this year we hope to release a more wide-ranging paper (Warwick University, 2007). It will provide data on the brain drain among the world's most-cited physicists and bio-scientists.

5. Charles Plott's essay makes the same point and adds that ‘the involvement of the life sciences will foster a degree of specialisation beyond the imagination of most economists.’

6. Related sentiments are expressed, within the Centenary volume, by Frank Hahn, John Pencavel and Richard Schmalensee.


European Commission. 2002. ‘More Research for Europe: Towards 3% of GDP.’ Communication from the Commission, COM(2002) 499 final, p.22.

Hey, J D (ed.). 1992. The Future of Economics, Oxford: Blackwell.

Johnson, J M. and Regets, M 1998. ‘International Mobility of Scientists and Engineers to the United States - Brain Drain or Brain Circulation?’ National Science Foundation (June). NSF 98-316.

Laband, D N and Tollison, R D. 2003 ‘Dry Holes in Economic Research’, Kyklos, 56, 161-173.

Machin, S and Oswald, A J 2000. ‘UK Economics and the Future Supply of Academic Economists’, Economic Journal, 110, F334-F349.

Morgan, T 1988. ‘Theory versus Empiricism in Academic Economics - Update and Comparisons.’ Journal of Economic Perspectives, 2, 159-164.

Neary, J P, Mirrlees J A and Tirole, J 2003. ‘Evaluating Economics Research in Europe: An Introduction.’ Journal of the European Economics Assocation, 1, 1239-1249.

Oswald, A J. 1991. ‘Progress and Microeconomic Data’, Economic Journal, 101, 75-80.

Oswald, Andrew J 2007. ‘An Examination of the Reliability of Prestigious Scholarly Journals: Evidence and Implications for Decision-makers.’ Economica, 74, 21-31.

Saint-Paul, G 2004. ‘The Brain Drain: Some Evidence from European Expatriates in the United States.’ Discussion paper series of IZA; Institute for the Study of Labour (September).

Warwick University (multiple authors). 2007. ‘Elite Universities and the Global Brain Drain’. Conference paper to be presented at the 3rd Meeting of the International Rankings Expert Group, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Shanghai, China. October.

Woods, M 2003. ‘Europe Slow in Stemming “Brain-drain” to America’. Post-Gazette National Bureau (October 20th) URL:

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