Where are the economists?

The lifeblood of science is data. No matter how ingenious human beings have proved to be, scientific progress has always depended on new data being produced. If you work in science (or engineering) for a long time, you tend to get impatient when discussions take place in the absence of good data. The saying “You can’t reason someone out of a position they didn’t reason themselves into” comes to mind when I listen to debates on any number of topics.

However, it is not just ideologues that are at fault. Ironically, academics (including me) are often guilty of substituting opinion for rigorous analysis. Think of a subject like the funding of Basic Research. Lots of scientists are prepared to give their opinion but do they really base their arguments on hard economic data? It’s fine to talk about the applications of General Relativity but when I hear people mentioning Einstein or Faraday when justifying the funding of basic research I can’t help but recalling Lloyd Bentsen’s famous put-down to Dan Quayle; “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy”. (Admittedly, it was a cruel remark and actually did not endear Bentsen to many.)

So what about a subject like Education Policy? The current paradigm can be summed up as “more is better”. There is no serious analysis of the benefits of education to the economy and the individual. Instead, correlations are drawn between educational spending and economic growth but without much real hard analysis of what kind of educational configuration is best. Just like the disastrous property market, the key driver of much thinking is that everyone should simply move up the education ‘ladder’.

But think of all the young people embarking on one of the more than 100 honours degrees for which the CAO entry points are less than 300. It’s hard not to think that such students would be happier, and the country would be better served, if some alternative educational pathway was available. Or think of the deficit in the IT sector. Instead of spending four years at University would not many young people, with an aptitude for programming, be better off learning their ‘trade’ within an apprenticeship model?

I am amazed sometimes at the lack of debate on this topic. If you look at a blog like The Irish Economy, to which many of the top economists contribute, there is very little discussion on the economics of education even though education consumes a huge proportion of the State’s budget. Banking seems to be the thing. Of course, education is about much more than economics, but it would be interesting to see what many of our economists have to say about the economics of education (or research for that matter). Has anyone really ‘dug deep’ into the data and has anyone anything to say about how precisely we should proportion the education budget to maximum effect?

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About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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