Economics and Research Assessment Systems

Donald Gillies


This paper seeks to analyse the effects on Economics of Research Assessment Systems, such as the Research Assessment Exercise (or RAE) which was carried out in the UK between 1986 and 2008. The paper begins by pointing out that, in the 2008 RAE, economics turned out to be the research area which was accorded the highest valuation of any subject in the UK, even though economists were then under attack for failing to predict the global financial crash which had occurred a few months earlier. One aim of the paper is to explain this economics anomaly in research assessment. The paper goes on to point out a key difference between economics and the natural sciences. Most areas of the natural sciences are dominated for most of the time by a single, generally accepted, paradigm, whereas there are always in economics different schools of thought which have different and highly conflicting paradigms. Given this situation, it is argued that the effect of research assessment systems in economics is to strengthen the majority school in the subject (whatever that is), and weaken the minority schools. This conclusion is supported by empirical data collected by Frederic Lee for the UK. It is then shown that the greater the dominance of the majority school, the higher the overall valuation of the subject is likely to be, and this is used to explain the anomaly noted earlier. It is argued that research in economics flourishes better in a situation in which there are a number of different schools treated equally, than in one in which a single school dominates. The conclusion is that research assessment systems have a negative effect on research in economics and give misleading results. Instead of such systems, an attempt should be made to encourage pluralism in the subject.

Published on 17 Jul 2012 in Economic Thought Vol 1, No 1, 2012