Escape from the ivory tower

Romesh Vaitilingam is a writer and media consultant who advises several research institutions on their public profile. These include the Royal Economic Society, the ESRC, the Institute for Social and Economic Research and the Centre for Economic Performance.

Is it really true that academic economists in the UK remain hidden in their ‘ivory towers’? Admittedly, many of them can be reluctant to appear in the media, particularly compared with their American counterparts. But they are certainly not absent from public life. Indeed, economists are increasingly powerful in policy circles — and maybe even more than in the US.

The occupants of the top jobs at the Bank of England, the Competition Commission, the Office of Fair Trading and Ofcom (the communications industries regulator) are all highly regarded scholars. Bank governor and former London School of Economics professor Mervyn King may not yet be a ‘personality’ like US Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan. But then we are not a nation obsessed with the stock market. And more time at the helm — and King’s enthusiastic use of sporting metaphors for monetary policy — may well make him a household name.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, academically trained economists are all over Whitehall. The Government Economic Service employs over 900 of them across 30 government departments and agencies. Several chief economists — including at the Department of Health, the Department for International Development and the Inland Revenue — are academics. And the new cabinet secretary and head of the civil service, Sir Gus O’Donnell, was once an economics lecturer at Glasgow, the university of Adam Smith.

Economists’ impact on our lives can be felt not simply in their growing presence in key policy roles. Recent furores over the UK’s declining social mobility and low productivity and poor management have all been set off by academic research. Leading research institutions like the Centre for Economic Performance (CEP) and the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) are bringing the practical tools of economics to bear on the design and evaluation of a wide range of government policies.

Independent management of interest rates by the Monetary Policy Committee. The New Deal to get unemployed people into jobs. The reform of higher education funding. R&D tax credits to encourage business innovation. Greater powers for the competition authorities. All are policies deeply rooted in UK economic research.

So too was the auction of UK mobile phone licences in 2000, designed by game theorists Ken Binmore and Paul Klemperer. This market test of the value of scholarship raised over £22 billion for the public purse, a sum that makes the money spent on public funding of economic research look like small change.

A number of UK academic economists are also seeking to have a wider impact on public debate through newspapers and popular books. Former Oxford professor John Kay, for example, has a weekly column in the Financial Times. It’s not a platform to attack the government in the style of New York Times columnist and Princeton professor Paul Krugman. But Kay still provokes controversy, notably when pointing out the typically sloppy economic thinking of many in business and consultancy.

Other researchers too — including Andrew Oswald, Richard Portes, Martin Weale and Linda Yueh — are often found on press comment pages or providing expert insight in broadcast news stories. And CEP founder and Labour peer Richard Layard recently published a widely reviewed book on the economics of happiness.

Nevertheless, academic economists are still less evident in the UK media than in the US media. Why? One reason is the sometimes rather narrow focus of UK economic news on house prices and interest rates. While some academics do have views on the outlook for the property market or the wider economy, there are dozens of City economists with similar interests and far stronger incentives — and the institutional resources — to talk to journalists.

And in the end, as with much in economics, it does all come down to incentives and resources. Getting involved with the media requires organisational commitment and support. This is where a lot of UK universities let their staff down, partly because of a culture of disapproval of ‘media dons’ — though this hasn’t stopped academic popularisers of history and science — but also because they are so much poorer than many of their US cousins, especially in the big private universities.

At the same time, despite the efforts of research funding agencies to encourage scholars to communicate their findings to wide audiences, the incentives in higher education are all on communicating with one’s peers. In economics, that means publishing technical articles in the discipline’s top journals.

Of course, these publications are equally important for career development in the US, particularly for getting tenure. But in the UK, they are also central to the ‘research assessment exercise’, the periodic performance measurement system that determines a large proportion of future funding.

Places like CEP and IFS show that it is possible to combine rigorous economic scholarship with both significant policy influence and being ‘in the news’. But the way we manage our higher education system doesn't make it easy.

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