Disconnected economists

As somebody who has never worked as an academic economist but still has all the passion for the subject that drove me to get a PhD, it was with a real sense of recognition that I read this article by Alexandra Lord in the Chronicle of Higher Education. It contains this call:

“If our profession is to thrive in or outside of the academy, we need to encourage and train new scholars to write accessibly. We also need to use new media to connect with the public. Fundamentally, we must provide more opportunities for graduate students to engage with the public, and we must better reward tenure-track and tenured faculty members for seeking to reach a general audience.”

She is writing about historians here, and the disconnect between academic historians and the massively enthusiastic amateurs who read popular history books, trace family trees, track down historical mysteries, re-enact events and so on. But the slight disdain academic historians feel for popularisers described in this article is shared with other academics, including of course economists.

The disconnect is far more troubling in the case of economics, for two reasons. One is that the academic discipline is in general disrepute because of the crisis, and while some economists in the universities are painfully aware of the need for change, I would say many others are either in denial or just can’t be bothered. The other reason is that economics has such a direct role in public policy and that makes public legitimacy essential if policies are to have the consent of the governed.

The gap between academic and popular economics should not be overstated, especially as more of the academics engage via blogs and social networks. Neither should the fact that there is a gap, not only between the ivory tower and people in general but between the university economists and professional economists in government and business.

I applaud Ms Lord’s efforts on the history front. I do my bit for popular economics, along with heroes like Tim Harford and John Kay, and all the excellent economic journalists we have. There is other post-crisis movement too, as Sara Ledwith reported in her recent Reuters special feature. Planning for a pilot UK Festival of Economics in late November is under way, inspired by the Trento Festival of Economics. A book, 

(following up the February conference on teaching economics at the Bank of England) will be out in mid-September. The need for better communication by scholars, highlighted by Ms Jones in the case of historians, was emphasised by almost every contributor to the conference and book.

So I think the gap is narrowing – but then it needs to.

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4 thoughts on “Disconnected economists

  1. The apparent disconnect between main stream macro economics and the realities of finance and banking is what I, as a layman, find so disconcerting. Actually replace “finance and banking” with common sense.

    • As an economist, I’m with you on the disconnect from actual banking and finance. (Common sense has its moments but can be overplayed.)

  2. A particular area might be to improve the input from UK academic economists into public debates.

    One blog commenter I have friendly cut and thrust with is always responding to my critiques by saying “the professors I work with aren’t like that.” And in the UK at least, that is often true – we have fewer neoclassical ideologues in Economics depts than many places. But you wouldn’t know it because the ideologues make the most noise.

    They are also, very damagingly, the ones who get most involved in branch fields like Health Economics. My area is Health Organisation and we spend a lot of effort trying to bring realism to the ideological fantasies of economists who write “drive-by” evidence free papers.

    • I’d be quite interested to know which economists you put in that camp. Not my speciality but the work I’ve read eg by CEP or Carol Propper seems pretty sound.

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