Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Some Ideas From Academia to Policy for 2010

Throughout the last year, our research group here has given a number of talks to political parties, government agencies and voluntary groups. These have been conducted in formal settings such as the third crisis conference, as well as a substantial number of internal sessions conducted in Geary and outside, including briefings to the Commission on Taxation, IBEC, Gallup learn@lunch and a number of other forums. We are certainly not restricted to Ireland and have given a number of European policy briefings, but simple geography does make it easier to organise informal sessions at short notice with Irish policy-makers and we do consider it part of our remit to feed in as much as possible from the literature to real-world policy in Ireland. For many of us here, part of 2010 will be to attack the question of the relevance of social science to policy with fresh energy and ideas. Colm Harmon has written on a number of occasions (e.g. here ) about the potential for policy to absorb ideas from academia and the type of structures that might promote this. One method that Colm himself has always promoted is the simple model of the academic as sounding-board. Our research culture here will continue to promote this. Most of us see it as part of our job to be available freely to answer questions to anyone on why our research areas matter.

There is, of course, also the backdrop of the main thrust of government policy in university funding, the belief that funding activity within universities will lead to externalities outside the university system. Like most of my colleagues, I continue my research agenda on top of a full teaching load and I'm not sure I accept the idea that I need to demonstrate value beyond the intrinsic value of teaching and researching the ideas in and of themselves. Having said that, part of the excitement of behavioural economics and related areas lies in the potential application of the ideas, and research groups such as ours are as well placed as any to explore the application of ideas. It is also the case that I have rarely given a talk to a policy or business group without hearing some ideas that I could not have accessed from the academic literature.

Some of the ideas that many of us here will be discussing and researching on throughout the next year are listed below. This is an illustrative overview and I do not claim to have special knowledge of my colleagues interests, all of whom are free to post here. As always, we are happy to talk to any groups who are interested in the implications of these literatures for their own areas. A number of established academics here such as Colm Harmon and Kevin Denny are active in some of these areas but also many of our PhD students are working very hard on a number of these topics and some of our best sessions have involved the interaction between experienced policy-makers and enthusiastic, knowledgeable students. The ideas below give a snapshot of areas at the cutting edge of modern economics and are areas that we have sufficient expertise here to coordinate their interaction with policy. The US literature, in particular, has provided an enormous menu of new policy options that we are only beginning to discuss in countries like Ireland. Off-the-shelf US solutions are clearly not a panacea, but having a world leader to observe is a clear advantage.

1. The influence of behavioural economics on financial regulation, innovation, health policy, environmental policy, consumer protection and other areas. This is currently one of the dominant streams of thought in public policy, driven to a large part by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. We strongly encourage any policy group working on these areas to get in touch if they would like to discuss ideas from this field with us. We have already had a number of interesting sessions with policy groups from revenue, financial regulation, transport and related fields.

2. The issues associated with an aging society. For example, the Mannheim-led SHARE study is in the field for a second round in Ireland and will be completed in 2010 by researchers at Geary.

3. Psychological Consequences of Recession. The implications of the literature on well-being economics for public policy is a regular feature of discussion on this blog and an area where there are a number of potential policy applications.

4. The Economics of Early Childhood Intervention. See, for example, a recent paper by colleagues on this topic. Professor James Smith's Ulysses lecture captures inspiringly the vast economic consequences of protecting childhood physical and mental health. It is hard to watch this lecture carefully without feeling ground shifting underneath one's feet even if the core message may seem well-known to anyone with common sense.

5. Trust. The inspiring work of Ernst Fehr and others on the nature and function of trust should be given high consideration in 2010 as the nations of the world try to rebuild financial and social institutions that have been run ragged over the last few years.

6. The importance of measurement for policy. We have been absorbed here in discussions around issues such as comparability of survey questions across countries, the use of bio-markers in economic data-sets, accurate measures of preferences and so on. Once again, the relevance of this for policy is a question worth exploring.

7. The determinants and consequences of health inequalities. Awareness of the economic and social contexts of health inequalities has picked up markedly in recent years yet much of the debate rests on a very simplified causal model of the effect of income on health. Research areas such as reducing inequalities in chronic illness management will get a lot of attention here throughout the year.

8. Youth unemployment. In October, David Blanchflower gave us a chilling snapshot  of what lies ahead without concerted effort on this core issue. This should be one of the main areas of study and debate in 2010.

9. The importance of causal inference for policy design and evaluation. This is a very large area to condense into a sentence but one major thrust in modern economics is an increased emphasis on development of policies that have in-built designs to subject them to causal tests of effectiveness.

10. The communication of risk in areas such as emerging technologies, food scares and so on. The FoodrisC programme, coordinated by Professor Patrick Wall will begin in February 2010. This five year FP7 programme will bring together leading academic and policy groups from across Europe to explore key issues in risk perception and risk communication, particularly in food contexts. We are participating in this network here and have been working on a major Irish study for the last three years. The food literature is clearly established in policy, but the experience of our banking crisis suggests a gaping hole in the ability of policy-makers to explain financial risks to citizens.

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