REF 'risks narrowing economics'

The research excellence framework risks turning British economics into “a purely quaint academic subject with no connection to the real world”, an academic paper has warned.

July 10, 2013

The paper, by a team led by Frederic Lee, professor of economics at the University of Missouri, claims that successive rounds of the REF’s predecessor, the research assessment exercise, has seen non-mainstream economics effectively “suppressed and eliminated”.

This makes it “more likely that significant economic events that do not conform to the mindset are missed - such as the 2008 economic crisis”.

Professor Lee, a self-proclaimed “heterodox” economist – a term to describe non-mainstream economics - writes that the increasing focus of quality-related funding on research deemed to be internationally excellent had seen it become concentrated in around a dozen top departments.

According to the paper, the “UK Research Assessment Exercise and the narrowing of UK economics”, published in the Cambridge Journal of Economics, these were the departments that were most likely to publish in the “Diamond list” of top economics journals, which typically favour “mainstream” theories.

Publication in these journals became particularly important when the number of submissions to the RAE, which was introduced in 1986, began to outstrip the panellists’ capacity to read all of the outputs. Hence, all departments began to regard Diamond list publications as crucial and began to recruit academics who could deliver them.

Meanwhile, “significant” and effective pressure was applied on heterodox economists to pursue mainstream research, move into other departments or leave the academy entirely. This meant the number of heterodox economists in English economics departments submitting to the RAE declined by 70 per cent between 1996 and 2012.

The paper says the homogenisation of the subject has been exacerbated by the funding councils’ practice of asking subject associations to nominate RAE and REF panellists.

In economics this was largely handled by the Royal Economics Society, which was dominated by a “powerful disciplinary elite” concentrated in top departments. This meant the vast majority of RAE panellists were mainstream economists.

The paper says this domination was particularly marked in the 2014 REF, noting that of the 12 England-based academics on the economics sub-panel, nine came from “elite and near-elite” departments and most were editors or former editors of Diamond list journals.

“It is reasonable to conclude that the sub-panel’s awareness of paradigmatic diversity does not extend beyond a narrow range of mainstream pluralism”, it says.

It adds that mainstream economists also hold “quite punitive” attitudes towards heterodox economists and their ideas, such that “that they should not be part of not just economics but all of academia”.

For these reasons, heterodox economists were likely to “attempt to submit their publications to other assessment areas to avoid their detection and examination” by the economics sub-panel.

“The issue is not about who is right or wrong with regards to economic theory; it is about the right to be wrong or possibly wrong without fear of genocidal punishment,” the paper says.

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