University of Academia and the Emergence of Echo-nomists!

As the year comes to an end, I reflect back on a Summer School which I attended in New Delhi, India.

The summer school, 4th IGC-ISI Summer School in Development Economics, was organized by the International Growth Center (http://www.theigc.org) in collaboration with the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI) in New Delhi from 9-13th July 2016. The workshop was attended by PhD scholars, post-docs/researchers like myself, and government officials spread across various ministries of India and the central bank of India, RBI. We were enrolled in one of the two tracks: macro or micro; where each track consisted of lectures from mostly Indian economist currently employed by US universities. The lectures were spread as such that the morning session (a two hour lecture) involved dissemination of research methodology/concepts/theories which the lecturer-deliverer principally uses in his/her research discussed in the afternoon session (a two hour lecture). Personally, I am a big fan of this teaching methodology of transitioning from theory to applied theory. It not only gives you a better understanding of a concept but also makes you appreciate on how simple concepts can help solve complex, intricate problems, even though on paper. I am a big fan of this teaching method. I guess it is because of my own past experience of tutoring  (more like teaching!)`current economic issues’ to first year undergraduate students at the University of Nottingham (UK) where I ensured that students learnt the art of applying their theoretical understanding of a concept to daily economic developments around them.

Moving on, the CVs of these lecture-deliverers are mind-blowing to say the least. Having come from IV league schools in the US with an exploding publication record can only leave you awestruck. Funnily, I have to be conscious about not explicitly calling them all lecturers because some of them were actually ranked higher academically, i.e. professors. I guess, I don’t want to step on the academic ego in the face of the fact that I continue to remain unsure if stepping on academic ego would matter/should matter in any case?

Whilst I embrace being a student of life day in and out, I have to admit that being a student in a classroom yet once again was sheer pleasure. Yet as the lectures progressed, I found myself in a very uncomfortable position of learning. Somehow, the `learning in the classroom’ stood at odds with the ‘learning in the real world’.  My hands never came down as they constantly questioned the wisdom imparted. I was left with this strange uncomfortness where I questioned my (in)sanity of questioning the deliverer – after all, aren’t we all taught, right from childhood, never to question the guru because the guru imparts wisdom and wisdom, over years, stand unquestionable and hence the guru is always right (or at least that is what I was taught). So why was I, over here, questioning the guru, the stock of wisdom of the guru, and the wisdom imparted by the guru?

Over days of questioning, and mingling with other professionals, I started to realize that the wisdom that i had gathered in the due process of dealings in the real world was the reason behind my uncomfortness. Interacting with some of these `gurus’ during the lectures (I am sure they considered me as a constant nuisance parameter wanting to do away with me.. how they wish!) made me realize that the journey in attaining white hair and brow has been so enriching, and I would have never gained this enrichment if I had not packed my office, wrote an email to my boss expressing my resignation with immediate effect, and put in my keys at the admin office at Oxford University, a university dream for many but mindless/worthless/meaningless drudgery journey for me. Surely, what is it that I gained that makes me so rich than these `gurus’? Not indulging in all the examples, I will list two from the Summer School:

  1. It was a session on corruption. The `guru’ is an associate professor (tenured) at the University of Virginia. Name withheld (go figure!). I was curious to learn more on corruption. I thought being an Indian was apparently enough to know all about corruption, and attending a lecture was not needed. But then, we always have to give the benefit of doubt of having missed out on ways to identify and deal with corruption. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting but here I am.

`Guru’: Corruption is a developing country phenomenon (I will never be able to forget this sentence).

Me: Raised my hands

`Guru’: Yes.

Me: I think it is rather loose to make a generic statement like this because corruption is not a developing country phenomenon only, and I say this because in my associations with international policy workers across spectrum of policy issues ranging from trade policies to development policies, you’d be surprised to know that even countries like South Korea are equally intransparent and corrupt, if not more than India.

`Guru’: South Korea is a DEVELOPING COUNTRY.

Yes, I am not even joking here. She actually said that. I didn’t know what to say next so I said “never mind”. Some eyes looked at me. I guess we were all consoling in disgust and wondering how are we going to spend the next 1 hour 45 minutes. I mean if the first 15 mins was this bad, imagine the rest!

Never mind being the state, she continued raising more questions on her “theory” of corruption in front of an audience that breathe corruption. Her defiance was unbeatable. For example,  an official tried to explain on how corruption can bias information having an impact on investments. The `guru’ responded to the official saying

You do not know how corruption works

Well.. no comments!

Moving onto the next `guru’

2. This was a lecture on Randomized Controlled Trial (RCTs) delivered by a professor (tenured) at Yale University. Name withheld (go figure!). Up front admition, this was the best lecture I have attended on RCTs. I thoroughly enjoyed his lucid explanation on every concept, and more so on his engagement with the audience and answering each and every question with utmost patience and diligence and examples. He had the positives and the negatives, the shortcomings and the benefits, all laid out. His message of not forgetting economics while doing statistics was like the icing on the cake. More so, his research being so relevant in the real world that I kept missing the point on why was there this apparent focus on `how to research to publish in a 4 star journal’. Isn’t solving an economic problem at hand or shouldn’t solving an economic problem at hand, the very job of economist, and shouldn’t/isn’t the ability to solve the economic problem be considered as a/the reward for an economist, and shouldn’t/isn’t a 4 star journal publication be thought of as a by-award (like a by-product)? Apparently not..

And yet once again, there goes my hand up again

`Guru’: Yes

Me: Your research is not only very interesting but I think it is a very important issue at hand especially when it comes to crop insurance in face of rainfall deficits we are witnessing every year. I am sure Indian policy makers would find the evidence from your investigation worthwhile, and it would definitely give them the needed evidence for making informed policy-decisions. So, have you or are you in the process of disseminating your research with policymakers?

`Guru’: No. It is too complicated to explain the concepts of demand and supply so I am not bothering.

Me: Actually, what you just explained is not very complicated. Well, if you explain it the way you just did, I do not see any complication.

`Guru’: This is not complicated? Maybe you are smart!

Laughter in the class

Me: What is the point of doing such a thorough investigation when it just has to be in a journal.. I mean shouldn’t potential beneficiaries be the target market?

`Guru’ did not know what to answer, and the class continued!!!

well.. no comments yet once again..!!!

This experience has only made me question on the state of a profession which was once crowned as a profession of LOGIC! Where is the logic in training economist to be echo-nomist? I mean, where is the logic in subjecting one’s research to journals where publication is an order of sycophantism or ‘I scratch your back, you scratch mine’ phenomenon? Where is the logic in using journal publishing as a measure of intelligence especially when a journal publication is biased itself to begin with? Where is the logic in functioning superiority of intelligence to the number of research published in four-starred-journals? I mean, does greater number of research published in these starred-journals imply superior intelligence? So, if

Intelligence of researcher/stock of knowledge of researcher(s) = f [number of research published in  four-starred-journals by researcher(s)]…… (1)

where

Number of research published in four-starred journals = f [mathematical formulation with unrealistic assumptions, amongst other factors]…….. (2)

Shouldn’t the above equation(s) also be subject to the rigor of academic scrutiny such that the estimated beta coefficient defining the relationship is not biased?

I mean, it is only logically to also carry out a logical assessment of intelligence or knowledge possessed by researchers, isn’t it? Logical reasoning is the path to evolution after all, right?

It only hurts to see that the profession of logic is now subject to an ill-defined relationship depicted by the above equation(s) where the academic world identifies the beta coefficient to be positive indicating that a rise in the ‘number of research published in four-starred-journals’ implies that researcher(s) are God-like! Likewise, the probability that the number of research getting published in four-starred journals increases with complex mathematical formulations mired with unrealistic assumptions

The problem with this approach is the potential irrelevance of research conducted by these God-like humans (outliers acknowledged), and their inability to perform in the real world. For instance, I remember of a seminar by a prof. (an Indian based in a US university) at RBI where after half an hour of mathematics (sorry! economics, I mean), the policymaker was asked on the uptake of his research for policy-making, and the prof. was left dumbfounded!

Anyway, I am not sure about being God-like but the rigor in getting published in these starred journal definitely hones your skills of ‘how to get to a high-star journal without necessarily using logic’ thereby increasing the gap between published research and reality being the frontier such that catch-up only regresses with every year passing. Besides, in my personal experience, I am beginning to feel that the positive beta coefficient identified by the academic world should, in fact, be negative because the more I talk to 4-starred journal publishes researcher(s), the more I find that their intelligence/stock-of-knowledge is…whatever!!!! While the negative relationship doesn’t hold across the board but yet it would be safe to assume that the negative relationship applies to an average economist when we take out the outliers from the economist distribution.

for example, my ‘boss’ at Oxford, an academic whose ‘research’ is mostly published in a 4-star journal, appeared to write a ‘story’ which she wanted to narrate by data crunching until a positive co-efficient didn’t appear which made the research more lucrative to publish! It made me question on the nature of research. Was/Is research about ‘story-telling’? Do I have to story-tell all of my life, and make sure that the story, whether logical or not/useful or not, gets published in a starred journal, and allow that to define my intelligence?  I have to admit that her way of doing ‘research’ made me question the entitlement of ‘wiser than the wise’ that Oxford enjoys.

The more I attended Oxford, the more I found pseudo-intellectualism wrapped beautifully in being ‘Oxford academic’ title. Every seminar suffocated my want of understanding the intricate world deeply. In fact, I remember two seminars so vividly where in one seminar, the speaker was from London School of Economics, speaking on climate change. After 50 mins, I was forced to ask a question, and my question to him was “if I was the Prime Minister of India, what would be your suggestion to me given your findings in this research, and this question should be read in light of the fact that the Prime Minister realizes that the methodology implemented in the research discussed in the last 50 mins is wrong and I am sure you are aware of it”. Well, the seminar moderator, a prof of economics at Oxford, intervened and changed my question. Consequently, my name was removed from the mailing list, and I was never invited for the seminars again. In a similar fashion, in another seminar, I raised the question of the methodological being implemented wrongly, and I was told “that is the beauty of being at Oxford. Many wrongs become right when the manuscript goes off the desk of an Oxford researcher.” I was so shocked and disgusted so much so that I walked off the seminar right away! of course there are exceptions to the rule, and sometimes exceptions do become the rule but then this exception-rule relationship doesn’t affect the above journal-intelligence/knowledge relationship, a safe assumption I would say!

The Summer School also made me question the ethical practices, and possibly the underlying hypocrisy, of the International Growth Center, in particular, and academia, in general. Several instances made me question this. For instance, International Growth Center “aims to promote sustainable growth in developing countries by providing demand-led policy advice based on frontier research” (http://www.theigc.org/about/). But the very functioning of IGC will make you question. For example,

  1. funding process of the International Growth Center is so not transparent = expect to receive funding if you know someone high-up, country director? lead academic? anyone really who has the power to grant funding. Of course, I am not speaking off the cuff – experience is a powerful tool, and if you are smart, you’d know what I am talking.
  2. The attendees to the summer school were put up in a hotel asked to share a room between two people. The hotel is in the army cantonment area close to the airport. No taxi/auto drivers refuse to go, and the ones that did go, demanded a premium. The rooms were so big that it was impossible to move after keeping the two pieces of luggage brought in by the two residents to the room. Having one bathroom meant.. no comments! if an attendee wanted to have a room to oneself then he would have to pay for the difference. However, the lecturers/speakers were put up in Le Meridien (New Delhi) which according to the website says “Located in the heart of the city , the iconic glass building of Le Meridien New Delhi has been recognised as one of the 100 Icons of Delhi. The hotel is located close to the institutions of both power and pleasure.  The hotel towers over the historic landscape of Lutyen’s Delhi surrounded by the President Palace – Rashtrapati Bhawan , Parliament House, Ministries, Government Institutions and the notable landmark- India Gate. Convention centres like Pragati Maidan and Vigyan Bhawan are in the close vicinity of the hotel. The main shopping hub Connaught place and the shoppers delight Janpath market, is within walking distance from the hotel. Its a perfect getaway for a business traveller who is also looking for some recreation nearby in the evening.” The birth of inequality by preachers of `let’s end inequality’.
  3. A little bird told me that all the speakers were flown in Business Class from their respective university-based countries (maybe someone should inquire about this?). From what I learnt through IGC country-economist, IGC doesn’t support international flying in Business Class. However, attendees to the summer school were given a travel grant equivalent to `second AC rail travel’ within India, and they would have to shell out from their pocket the difference if they choose to travel beyond second AC rail travel. Again, the birth of inequality by preachers of `let’s end inequality’.
  4. I have never understood how projects are granted to `economist’ to undertake investigation on India whilst they are stationed outside India? I mean, I found it ironic when a researcher from MIT (one of the most priveliged environment) presented on air pollution and the odd-even-Delhi-strategy. Nothing against the researcher – he must be as able as able can get! I was reminded of an Oxford fellow post-doc who once mocked when asked to travel to Africa to feel development to write a development paper. yes! he didn’t think it was necessary to feel development. actually, he never understood the need to feel development. I am almost tempted to conclude here that granting of funds to economist not stationed in India especially when they have no access to the concerned ministry for understanding the broader picture or access to the concerned ministry for discussing research results or potential dissemination of the research results for effective evidence-based policy-making = applied economics gone wrong.

In a nutshell it appears that IGC funds research on ending corruption/burecracy/nepotism while doing the same at home. Funds research on the need to distribute economic wealth equally across stratum so that everyone is better off while ensuring unequal distribution of wealth at home with obvious economic consequences from such unequal distribution. Fancy presentations with excellent oration misses the point.

Whilst I met excellent researchers discussing ideas, experiences, and life in general, the Summer School, to me, appears to be the much needed stamp to seal the saying of Nassim Nicholas Taleb “The best researcher is the one who hates academia, the best politician the one who hates politics, the best doctor the one who hates medicine & the best bureaucrat the one who hates bureaucracy.

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3 thoughts on “University of Academia and the Emergence of Echo-nomists!

  1. Yeah…often economists tend to forget that mathematics is just a tool that should be used smartly, not abused.Many of the ideas that you’re expressing here have also crossed my mind many times related to the way development economics is taking…I also have the feeling that the point of researchers is to just get published, mostly for getting a better academic title, no matter if the research is useful, no matter if it makes sense, no matter if the methodology used is correct or not, no matter how the real world looks like. Models become simple playgrounds…economics transformed into some sort of mathematical philosophy. Great article! Thank you for sharing your personal experience in this field!

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  2. Thanks for sharing and reflecting on the summer school and the profession in general. To some degree I’m a bit torn and have a couple of thoughts which I will try to structure as good as possible:

    (i) Economics profession, job market & publishing
    On the one hand, I totally agree and share your critique on the economics profession (often or at least in some cases) being narcissistic, not caring about real-world problems but developing and elaborating overly sophisticated models/using finest methodologies to just get published in high-ranked journals. On the other hand, who, if not economists, believe in setting incentives? Hence, as a young scholar you desperately need to play the game in order to get a (tenured) position. And, while this might not be the best criteria and the route to publishing faces many challenges (access, networking,…), you still would need to come up with some more objective and better criteria and a better system than peer-reviewed journals.

    (ii) Academia vs policy-makers
    I think there is no doubt that academia has to benefit people outside of the ivory tower, too. Policy-makers like to mandate all kind of research centres doing research on whatever kind of question, ideally, to back-up their interest. Hence, you often know already before what the result might be, and if it doesn’t fit policy-makers’ preference then the study will hardly ever be referred to. Therefore, and in addition to the fact that academia in most cases is taxpayer money, it is important to have independent research which makes your example of data-crunching even more frustrating and disenchant. While I think the economics profession has rightfully been receiving much criticism, especially during and after the crisis in 08, I still strongly believe that the voice of economists and their understanding of mechanisms is very much needed. So, in my view there is an increasing demand for people that are able to bridge academic and policy work, especially given the potentially detrimental interest and time-perspective.

    All that said, I just love the saying of Taleb and I think it is spot on.

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    1. Hello!

      So with regards to (i): spot on! You raised the question and answered it there itself. It is not the best criteria and a better criteria is much needed! I have been talking about this in the academia and emphasizing that we need to have an alternative criteria to academic utility have been suggesting the need to have a policy-oriented

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