Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

If You Create a Soviet-Style Planning System, You Will Get Tractors

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

If You Create a Soviet-Style Planning System, You Will Get Tractors

Article excerpt

Progress results when universities encourage iconoclasm and risk-taking, not identikit REF-able research outputs, says Andrew Oswald

If everyone likes your research, you can be certain that you have not done anything important. That is the first thing to grasp. Conflict goes with the territory.

The young see further if they stand, metaphorically speaking, on the shoulders of older research giants, who will shake their fists upwards at the delusions of the clambering young people's subversive ideas. It is essential to annoy famous people - and it would be good if PhD students were told that on their first day. Progress means putting the old (including me) out of business.

In 1993, a handful of youngish researchers at the London School of Economics decided to run the world's first conference on a new topic. We felt that if economists could not understand human happiness and help make the world cheerier, there was not much point in the discipline, and also that the obsession with gross domestic product missed the key issues of the modern world. It is difficult to convey how strange, at that time, such an idea seemed. It lay somewhere between does-not-compute and ring-the-asylum. A 27-year-old colleague named Andrew Clark and I procured a large room. The LSE's walls were covered with posters; colleagues were petitioned to attend. Three or four brilliant speakers were chosen (one soon got a Nobel prize, admittedly for different work). On the day, we dragged 120 chairs into the room. Eleven o'clock arrived. Then 10 minutes past. I was chairing. I stared at the clock and we had to start, despite unforgettable embarrassment. Apart from the speakers, there were only three people in the audience.

Earlier this year, there was a public debate on the same topic in LSE's Old Theatre. More than 500 people showed up; countless more were sent away. The Office for National Statistics, and many other nations' statistical offices, have begun to collect happiness survey data. Well-being conferences proliferate.

However, the intervening decades were painful. Some hostile economists and economics journals did their best to block the new thinking, and of course many still do.

Progress occurred because it was not the year 2014. We could take risks. In 1993, none of us was bothered about research assessment exercises. My colleagues and I simply thought this seemed an interesting avenue to explore, and then we blundered along it in the usual fog of research. I did not give much thought to whether my paper at that conference would be able to get into a journal. (In the end it finally did; the paper appeared 11 years later, in 2004, after more rejections than I care to remember. …

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