Stern words for scholars in policy sphere

British Academy’s new president demands clarity and humility

July 18, 2013

The new president of the British Academy has called for more “humility”, “clarity” and “care” among academics engaging with public policy issues.

Lord Stern of Brentford, who takes up the post on 18 July, has been chief economist at the World Bank and second permanent secretary at the Treasury. He is also the author of a major report on climate change for the UK government.

Lord Stern is keen for the British Academy to develop its public engagement work, “where you are not necessarily driving towards recommendations but trying to bring the social sciences and humanities to bear on the real problems of our times”.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, he pointed to questions such as ageing; immigration and migration; well-being and public policy; and the broader international challenge of “the fraying of trust in political life and institutions”.

But although the British Academy should exercise some leadership and can help in encouraging directions through its research grant activities, Lord Stern said that an even more fundamental aspect of its work was “celebrating what academics do”.

This can involve exploring topics for their own sake beyond any policy agenda because “sometimes it’s good just to understand how things happen”. His own favourite research project, for example, is a “micro, micro, micro” study of a single village in Uttar Pradesh called Palanpur over the past 50 years, drawing on the experiences of individual families to illuminate “how it forms an example and a reflection of the way India is changing”.

Asked about the responsibility of academic economists for the banking crisis, Lord Stern acknowledged that “we need more humility and a recognition of how our subjects are themselves subject to fashion. In the 1980s and 1990s there was a naive belief in what the unfettered market could deliver in terms of growth, stability and income distribution. That came back to bite us.

“There’s a special responsibility for those involved in policy to be clear and careful. Sometimes simple-mindedness masquerades as clarity, without care.”

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