You might expect the main benefits of becoming a Nobel laureate to include securing more research grants, having more freedom to focus on exciting problems and working in some of the most coveted positions in academia.
But for Jean Tirole, winning the 2014 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences was a “tipping point” because it led him to focus more on the wider public, not more on the minutiae of his research.
While the chairman of the Toulouse School of Economics has long advised policymakers, it was only after he was given the prestigious award that he realised that he “had some kind of duty” to explain to the wider public what economists do and about the insights that the field can offer.
“All at once, people stopped me in the street and said: ‘None of what you write is readable. It’s very academic. Can you explain to us what economists have to say about the big challenges, and what you do, and whether we can trust economists?’” Professor Tirole told Times Higher Education.
His new book, Economics for the Common Good, is the result of that new awareness: his first book for a general audience, it explains the way that economists work and the way that economics can illuminate and inform some of the key challenges facing our societies.
Professor Tirole acknowledged that the work has even greater significance today than when it was first devised, in light of the rise of populism in the US and Europe.
It was when leading Brexiteer Michael Gove was challenged in a television interview about warnings by economists, and other figures, about the potential economic impact of Brexit, that he gave what is now an infamous response: “I think the people in this country have had enough of experts.”
Professor Tirole, who won the Nobel prize for his analysis of market power and regulation, said that such sentiments, which were also a feature of Marine Le Pen’s presidential campaign in France earlier this year, were unlikely to lead to scientific progress being impeded.
“Scientific progress is going to continue anyway, unless the funding is cut for some areas,” he said.
Instead the question for Professor Tirole is whether anti-expert rhetoric prevents this progress being reflected in government policy.
“If the politicians don’t want to talk to experts and they convince the public opinion that actually experts are useless, it’s very hard to act,” he said.
But one potential way that academics can reverse such a trend is by banding together, acknowledging policy areas on which they have a consensus, and then communicating this to the wider public, he said, adding that public advocacy work is a “different ball game” from research.
“In research, you like people to have contrary ideas and to challenge the perceived wisdom. But when you get to the public debate, at some point there must be some consensus that comes out and the public opinion has to be aware of it,” Professor Tirole said.
“You can always find someone who will tell you that [Donald] Trump’s policies are wonderful. But at some point you need to say there is a consensus in the profession among the good scholars.”
Such an approach, he said, would prevent the public from claiming that “the experts disagree, so we don’t have to listen to experts”.
Professor Tirole, along with eight other Nobel prizewinning economists, used this strategy earlier this year when writing an open letter criticising Ms Le Pen’s anti-European Union programme ahead of the first round of the French presidential election.
While the signatories “have wide beliefs about economics” and represented “a very wide political spectrum”, the letter showed that there was a “consensus” that “the economics stink” when it came to protectionism and that the idea that there is a fixed amount of work in the economy was a fallacy, he said, adding that it impacted the views of some of the public.
Education can also play a part in demonstrating the value of academics, Professor Tirole said.
In particular, he said that secondary schools and universities should better explain the “scientific method” of devising and testing theories and ensure that this is taught to all students, regardless of their subject specialism.
“If at school, more pupils were taught the scientific method, they would have respect for what scientists do. And they would realise that non-scientists, like politicians, might present evidence which is completely meaningless,” he said.
“Democracy is not going to work if there is not a minimum respect for expertise. Otherwise the populists will have a field day. And right now they have a field day.”