Why Canadian academics stay away from government policy work

Posted on June 8, 2016 in Policy Context

NationalPost.com – Full Comment
June 7, 2016.  Stephen Gordon

A record 1,200 people attended the meetings of the Canadian Economics Association last weekend. The conferences always get a good turnout when they’re held in Ottawa; they attract the couple of hundred extra government-sector research economists who would like to present their work, but don’t have a travel budget. And the policy-oriented academics who might have given the conference a miss are happy to renew and make new contacts in the federal government. It’s the sort of conference where there’s a session — I was a panelist — on how to close the gap between academic research and economic policy-making.

I don’t know what it’s like in other fields, but the main obstacle to more and better evidence-based policy-making in economics is not a stubborn refusal of public servants to listen to academics. (The willingness of their political masters to listen is another question.) The problem is a shortage of supply, not a lack of demand. While many government agencies often have their own research departments, they are generally modest in scope and are ill-equipped to handle large projects without outside help.

Canadian academics have little professional incentive to get involved in policy work: tenure and promotion decisions largely depend on publishing in top journals and contributing to your department’s international ranking. Spending time on policy papers — especially papers that focus on Canadian policy issues — can be a risky career strategy. An economist who wants to work on policy would probably do better to take a job in the public service, not academia.

The challenge for the public service who would like to attract more academics into policy work is to offer incentives of its own. Financial support is an obvious place to start, but it’s not always effective: if academics were the sort of people who would work on projects that don’t interest them in return for higher pay, they probably wouldn’t be in academia in the first place. And in any case, professors in Canada don’t benefit personally from research grants — the rules forbid these funds from being used to top up salaries.

Another strategy involves using the public service’s most valuable asset as bait: insider status. Access to confidential data is especially tempting: researchers are always curious to see what patterns might be found in unexplored data sets, and a new finding might even be publishable in a top journal. Lesser attractions include things like getting invited to private conferences and being asked by deputy ministers and even ministers for advice. (In case you’re wondering: yes, I’ve done all this.)

To be sure, this approach is almost certainly a success on its own terms. Although no policy-making process is immune to error, it generally produces more hits than misses. And since policy evaluation is an integral part of the process, errors can be identified and fixed. Initiatives like free trade, the goods and services tax and the Bank of Canada’s inflation-targeting policy all emerged from the interactions between academics and public servants, and we’re all better off for them.

The only way to ensure that a policy will survive a change in government is to obtain broad public buy-in
The insider culture of policy-making is an issue that deserves much more attention than figuring out ways to persuade more academics to do economic policy work. The problem with leaving policy-makers to insiders is that a system in which outsiders get presented with a series of faits accomplis is not consistent with most people’s views of democracy. And even if the process does produce good policies, subsequent governments will feel free to reverse them. The only way to ensure that a policy will survive a change in government is to obtain broad public buy-in.

The GST is a good case in point. It enjoyed — and still enjoys — broad support among economists, but we weren’t very present in the public debate, preferring to leave that job to the Mulroney government. This lack of public support from economists likely made it easier for the Liberals and then the New Democrats to campaign on promises to eliminate the GST. By the time the Conservatives campaigned on a promise to reduce the GST by two percentage points, almost nobody was left to credibly oppose the measure. As a result, the GST reduction may be the most enduring legacy of the Harper government, all because of the lack of public buy-in more than 20 years ago.

In principle, explaining the logic behind new economic policies is supposed to be the job of politicians and the media, but available evidence would suggest that they are not very good at it. For example, politicians always end up forcing everything through the prism of job creation, even when the policy being discussed has nothing to do with employment levels. And the media are too prone to the “Opinions differ on the shape of the Earth” fallacy of reporting the conflict instead of figuring out which side has the stronger argument. Economics professors have much to offer here, but too few of us feel obliged to share our understanding with the public.

The gap between academic economists and the public is much wider and far more troubling than that between academic economists and policy-makers. But if there are few incentives for us to do policy research, there are no incentives for us to engage the public: you won’t get tenure by writing blog posts and op-eds.

National Post

Stephen Gordon is a professor of economics at Université Laval.

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