Promoting economics to the widest audience

We report here on two major public events, supported by the RES, which set adventurous precedents in the use of internet technology.

For many years, the RES has seen the promotion of economics and economic understanding to the widest possible public as one of its major responsibilities. To this end, for example, it has organised the annual public lecture and it has offered a prize for the 'Young Economist of the Year'. November 2013 saw two further developments in this part of the Society's work. Firstly, through the efforts of Diane Coyle, it supported a series of events at the Bristol Festival of Ideas (a 'Festival of Economics') using the internet to take the events to a much wider audience than could attend in person, and the annual public lecture (given by Tim Harford) was also broadcast live over the internet, with the opportunity for members of the cyber-audience to pose questions at the end. We report briefly on both events, drawing on comments from a number of those that took part.

Festival of Economics
The Bristol Festival of Ideas was inaugurated in 2004 and has grown to a major event in the UK cultural calendar. In 2012 it hosted approximately 150 events with some 40,000 people participating. In the same year the Festival added the first of a series of parallel events, in this case a Festival of Economics, suggested and organised by Diane Coyle. This first venture had just four sessions; the 2013 Festival had 12 sessions with 43 speakers spread over three days (21-23 November). The full programme and the speakers can be seen at http://event.wavecastpro.com/festivalofeconomics. What is immediately striking about the 2013 Festival is the range of participants. Of course, there were many well-known economists. Simon Wren-Lewis, Will Hutton, Andrew Sentence and Margaret Heffernan debated the ‘State of Economic Recovery in the UK’. David Hughes, Paul Johnson, Sarah Smith, and David Walker discussed the ‘Reform of Social Services’; and Stewart Lansley and Steve Machin led a discussion on ‘Inequality — why does it matter?’. In this, they were joined by Polly Toynbee of the Guardian who made a number of trenchant (and well-received) criticisms of the way in which an anti-welfare discourse had acquired such dominance in public debate. Polly Toynbee’s contribution was a striking demonstration of the Festival’s determination to widen the engagement of the public with economics and vice-versa. One of the earliest sessions discussed the popular question of whether the UK was in the process of producing a ‘jilted-generation. Contributors to this popular session included Katherine Whitehorne of the Observer and the writers and commentators Bonnie Greer, Shiv Malik and Owen Jones.

The Friday afternoon session was notable for three informal sessions: A seminar on the relationship between the public and private sectors In which twelve officers from the Government Economic Service took part and two sessions hosted by Tim Harford (Financial Times) in one of which he talked to students from two local schools about his work. This was a very popular event that looks set for expansion next year.

The expansion of the programme was accompanied by a substantial rise in attendance (3857 from 1300 in 2012). It is estimated that 25 per cent of those who took part were under 25 and at least 350 came from schools.

The Festival was supported by: Business West, Bristol Chamber, Joseph Rowntree Foundation; Royal Economic Society, the Government Economic Service, Princeton University Press and Wiley. Support was also received from the University of Bristol, The Economics Network and others. It was managed by Bristol Cultural Development Partnership (Arts Council England, Bristol City Council and Business West) who managed the festival. In addition to providing core support, the Royal Economics Society provided funding for the festival to be webcast live by Wavecast Pro. Some viewing statistics are given in the box above.

The 2014 Festival will be held on 20-22 November.

The public lecture
Inaugurated in 2001, this initiative aims to bring the best communicators in the economics profession into contact with a wide public and to show the importance of top-quality economic research. Traditionally delivered in two centres, the Public Lecture has always been oversubscribed and so the decision was made this year to make the lecture available live via the internet (with the help of Wavecast Pro) and to leave a recording available for viewers to watch subsequently. More ambitiously still, arrangements were made to take questions at the end of the lecture, from listeners to the video streaming.

The lecture was given by Tim Harford, FT columnist and well-known broadcaster and writer on economics who took as his title ‘How to Run — or Ruin — an Economy’. The main feature of the lecture was a colourful account of the life of ‘Bill’ Phillips and the origin of the Phillips Curve. The message was that while macroeconomists are always desperate for reliable data, it is not a good idea to base macroeconomic policy upon a statistical relationship that we do not understand. A small and unscientific sample of opinion taken after the lecture thought the message could have been clearer but all agreed that it was a very polished and entertaining talk.

Turning to the technological innovation, there was some criticism of limited camera angles and range of shots (there were no visual aids to focus on). There seemed also to be a problem with the management of questions from the ‘in house’ audience. These were inaudible to viewers of the webcast and the consequences were made worse by Tim’s inviting three questions together before beginning an answer. The questions from remote viewers, however, were regarded as a great success, as is the decision to leave a recorded version available online. There was universal agreement that it was a worthwhile experiment and that it should be repeated.

From issue no. 164, January 2014, pp. 22-3.

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