high status policy research is often not the best policy research

At Overcoming Bias, Robin Hanson observes that his fellow economists don’t always focus on the policies that have broad consensus, are easy to understand, and easy to implement. He uses the example of road pricing:

Heavy traffic is a problem every economist in the world knows how to solve: price road access, and charge high prices during rush hour. With technologies like E-ZPass and mobile apps, it’s easier than ever. That we don’t pick this low-hanging fruit is a pretty serious indictment of public policy. If we can’t address what is literally a principles-level textbook example of a negative spillover with a fairly easy fix, what hope do we have for effective public policy on other margins?


I agree. Think about status in economics – what sorts of work gets you the rewards? For a while, it was really, really hard math. Also, macro-economics, which is a notoriously hard field. Recently, insanely clever identification work. What do these have in common? They are hard. In contrast, how many Bates or Nobel prizes have been awarded for simple, high impact work, like road pricing? Nearly zero is my guess.

The same is true in sociology. Sociologists often imagine themselves coming up with marvelous approaches to solving deeply rooted social inequalities. For example, a few months ago, we discussed research on gender inequality and how it might be explained, partially, by the relative over- or under-confidence of men and women. In other words, it might be that women are overly cautious in terms of promotions.

One simple solution would be to require all eligible people to apply for promotions (e.g., require that all associate profs apply for full professorship after a few years). It is a simple rule and would almost certainly help. The response in the comments? The solution doesn’t remedy gender prejudice. Well, of course not, but that wasn’t the point. The point was to fix a specific issue – under representation of women in applicant pools. I have no idea how to eliminate the bias against women, but I can make sure they get promoted at work often – and it’s easy!

Bottom line: Social scientists have their priorities reversed. They get rewarded for trying to solve insanely hard problems, while leaving a lot of simple problems alone. That’s leaving cash on the table.

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Written by fabiorojas

September 16, 2014 at 12:01 am

4 Responses

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  1. There’s a fairly simple reason for this rejection of the “band-aid”. It works. But flatters nobody’s ego. And even less, gives nobody the pleasure of spending years avoiding issues that really matter. Issues some of us would see handed down to our great grand children rather than take a long hard look at what we get out of the suffering of others, or even our own suffering.



    September 16, 2014 at 5:27 am

  2. I think you’re confounding *research* and *implementation* – the question of what research gets rewarded (reminds me of Jeremy on ‘interesting’) is a good one, and I’m sure it’s true that ‘hard’ as well as ‘trendy’ matter a lot. But the issue with road pricing or requiring everyone to apply for promotions isn’t that research on these things won’t be rewarded, it’s that these are implementation issues. I don’t think they haven’t been implemented because academics don’t find them sexy, they haven’t been implemented because politics/inertia/no one’s advocating for them. Maybe you’re suggesting that there ought to be more research on these policies so they’re more likely to get implemented? But if the social science is really rock solid already, that would be silly, right?

    Liked by 1 person

    Daniel L

    September 16, 2014 at 10:40 am

  3. Concerning roads (a fighting word if I ever heard one), tolls are usually only charged by the state on roads where no other jurisdiction has a claim. So, roads that belong to or come under the jurisdiction of a county or township, a town or city, or a development, homeowner’s association or property owners association are not usually charged a toll. For road services, the smallest jurisdiction with control charges a property tax for road maintenance but this does not necessarily apply to associations and of course never to private property. For citizens of a state, the toll would be a doubled tax, so tolls often are charged for roads used by persons who are passing through. Sometimes, a toll is charged for a road that requires a special maintenance or has a date of jurisdiction earlier than the state’s inauguration.

    As for professors (another fighting word), the most contentious promotions are from assistant to associate professor, that is, the granting of tenure which does not necessarily grant “”academic freedom.”” It depends on the culture of the specific university. Another contentious designation, is the “”adjunct”” professor which is valued similarly to its connotation! This role is exploited as cheap labor and is rarely permitted any promotion. The promotion from associate to “full” professor is a departmental decision where there is usually only one “full” professor and the associates vie for seniority and reputation, so age is a criterial factor. Exceptions include situations where the department is very large and there are many students, so there are many distinct administrative tasks which require professors of similar rank, but since “”rank”” is a diffusive authority at this level of social decision-making, disputed decisions can result in a resignation or transfer. See scandals similar to the rejection of Bellah from Princeton in 1973, Rorty’s experience at Princeton, Thomas Kuhn’s treatment at Berkeley in 1961 when he was denied promotion to full professor by the philosophy department. There are several other instances like this where renowned individuals are impugned, so it is likely that there are also many cases where lesser individuals are given the shortshrift without any good reason (another infamous fighting word).


    Fredrick Welfare

    September 17, 2014 at 12:30 am

  4. I thought it was Vickrey who did the congestion/pricing work.



    September 17, 2014 at 8:22 am

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