Letters to the editor - Academic economists and the media


Simon Wren-Lewis’s cri de coeur, in the July Newsletter, asks why the media lost interest in academics’ views in the lead-up to the Brexit vote. Could it be that the media, staffed generally by intelligent, discerning journalists, (even the ‘red-tops’) were aware that the academic community as a whole was severely conflicted? UK universities depend upon the EU currently for 8 per cent of their student customers; they also receive about £1 billion per annum in research grants from the EU; you do not bite the hand that feeds you. Evidence of this dependency has come since the Brexit vote from letters to the press pointing out that many in the university sector ‘have benefited from very substantial EU initiatives and funding’ asking for reassurance from the Government that research will be protected in a post-Brexit world (see, for example Daily Telegraph letters, July 2).

What is surprising is that the academic community has un-self-consciously pursued the pro-Brexit stance; Professor Wren-Lewis’s piece for example fails to mention or allude to the universities sector conflict of interest. Moreover, the general lack of pluralism during the debate, in spite of the foregoing mentioned munificence, is deeply disappointing, if not of more general concern. The universities contribution appeared to have been characterised by ‘group think’ and ‘intellectual capture’ or to use Wren-Lewis’s phrase, ‘politicisation of the truth’. With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps the RES should have taken the initiative, forcing some pluralism into the debate electing ‘champions’ to research and pursue opposing views using, if necessary, academic resources from outside the EU.

David Starkie
University of Applied Sciences

Simon Wren-Lewis replies...

David Starkie wonders why I did not mention academic economists' potential conflict of interest when discussing their consensus view about the impact of Brexit. Here are some reasons:

1) I have rather more faith in my colleagues’ academic integrity than he does;

2) I do not receive, nor do I plan to receive, directly or indirectly any money from the EU. As I thought the estimates of the costs of Brexit used standard theory and evidence in a very reasonable way, I saw no reason to seek any ulterior motive.

3) These estimates were also of the same order of magnitude as those produced by economists at the OECD and IMF. Now of course they could all be part of some general conspiracy!

4) The focus of my article was not Brexit, but a more general lack of interest from the media in the views of academic economists. What happened over Brexit therefore fitted a recent pattern.

5) On the small number of occasions I have heard journalists discuss Brexit with academic economists, or when they have discussed it with me directly, I do not recall this issue of conflict of interest arising.

As a result, I see no reason to believe that the media's lack of interest in the views of academic economists over Brexit had anything to do with a perceived conflict of interest. Alas, David Starkie’s comments do fit a pattern: to quote John Van Reenen, the ‘Leave side simply impugned the motives of “the experts” rather than seriously engaging with the substance of the economic debate.’

Simon Wren-Lewis
Merton College, Oxford

More on this from SW-L at: https://mainlymacro.blogspot.fr/

From issue no.175, October 2016, p.19

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