Saturday, 10 August 2013

Newsflash: Social Scientists Believe They Should Receive More Funding

(To the exclusion of other disciplines, of course...)


Earlier this week the Adam Smith Institute promoted a recent paper by Cristiano Antonelli and Claudio Fassio of the University of Turin. In their groundbreaking article they sought to trace the contribution of different academic subjects to economic growth, calculated using a data set from 1998-2008. Their controversial findings seemed to indicate that, while science graduates had the positive effect on growth that might be expected, humanities had a slightly negative impact, prompting the statement that "public support should be increasingly directed towards the most productive types of knowledge rather than across the board of all disciplines". What emerges from the analysis however is an unsurprising case in favour of an increase in state funding for the authors' own field.

The Adam Smith Institute appears to have taken these findings very much to heart: under the headline "Of course we should stop subsidising arts degrees", Tim Worstall wryly notes "well, have you ever actually looked at an arts degree syllabus these days? They might well instruct well on the importance of feminism to Jane Austen, say, but they do seem to misinform about everything else political and economic". Such self-congratulatory judgement does little credit to the Institute however, and I would urge a fair amount of caution before taking these findings as political canon.

The first thing that might strike a reader as immediately odd is the fact that the "medical sciences" are highlighted in particular as a range of fields that negatively impacts growth. This is already anticipated by the study in its introduction however, perhaps explaining the decision to include them as an entirely separate category to the other "hard" sciences. Professional disciplines such as "law" and "business" however, which might be expected to have an equally disproportionate effect on the results, are nonetheless grouped with the social sciences, while "education" is attached to the humanities. The negative influence of the medical sector is furthermore explained away as being due to it having a "narrow scope of application" and being largely publicly funded in a number of countries: the issue of funding creates a significant distortion that should be taken into account, and the question of scope might again be better addressed by attaching the medical sciences to a different category.

With these suggestions in mind, graduate destinations in particular could prove a fruitful area for further research. With a cursory look at fields in which an individual is able to make a significant economic impact, medicine is an obvious choice for those from a medical background, while those with an education in the humanities often find themselves well-suited to careers in a diverse range of fields, from the law to business management. These select routes however have in common a significant cost of training, often at personal risk and expense (encouraging hefty state subsidy) and potentially extravagant final salaries. This certainly does nothing to disprove the paper's findings, though it does point to the potential for further distortions.

I am particularly surprised to see writers from an organisation that tends in its publications to praise free market forces above all else support so wholeheartedly a paper that encourages deep state intervention in the supply of workers to meet (assumed and projected) demand from specific employers. This is especially difficult to understand when taking Britain as an example. Within the statistics used for the study, Britain has one of the highest proportions of science graduates alongside one of the smallest manufacturing sectors when calculated as a proportion of GDP. Presumably, were there such a substantial need for technical skills, as assumed, there would be much greater demand from employers, prompting the creation of more lucrative jobs for young graduates from those disciplines without the interference of the state. This is in fact largely already the case: as the study itself notes, for example, proportions of engineering graduates closely correlate with the size of the manufacturing sectors within the countries chosen for study.

The value of pushing students who may or may not be best suited to scientific training down such a route in the pursuit of assumed demand is also highly questionable, as suggested in an earlier article. Messrs. Antonelli and Fassio here labour under the assumption that the only purpose of academic study is to provide economic growth. While this should certainly be one of the chief aims of state sponsorship, there are also significant quality of life implications that must be taken into account, standing bold among them the wealth of opportunity available in future life for promising graduates of the majority of disciplines. I need not mention in detail the damage that might be caused by the loss of the so-called "soft skills" - the ones that govern day-to-day activity outside the realm of academia - which are provided in large helpings by the humanities. Our legal services, alongside our civil, diplomatic and political services, would certainly lose out (although it is noted that some additional technical expertise among those who are increasingly responsible for making critical decisions on technical issues might not go too far amiss).

The most significant criticism to be made of this study however concerns the manner in which the multitude of different academic disciplines have been divided into the four highly unequal categories of "hard sciences", "social sciences", "medical sciences" and "humanities". The paper's source, stats.oecd.org, makes no such distinction, though it becomes slightly more understandable when looking at the subjects included as "social sciences". While most professional fields have been included under this heading, "social services" inexplicably find their way to the "medical science" category and "education", as already noted, is a "humanity". The uncontroversial "hard sciences" are the subject of a hard topic-by-topic analysis, with "engineering" clearly coming out on top. The other headings encounter no such scrutiny, though it is well-deserved (indeed, the bias to the results caused by engineering alone is highlighted by the paper as in need of further scrutiny). The authors are, of course, themselves what they term "social scientists", and it is therefore difficult to avoid cynicism when looking at their findings on these terms, especially when taking into account the force they place behind their recommendations for additional funding in their conclusion.

The paper is of course an initial probing study into the use of OECD data concerning academic output, and for reasons that should by now be fairly clear should not be taken as any more than this. Antonelli and Fassio should be praised for their use of unusual data in a new and bold way; their findings as a whole have the potential to form the framework for a wealth of further research. Despite their claims to the contrary however, to take things further than this and to base critical decisions upon their findings alone would be foolhardy in the extreme.

When faced with accusations that the so-called "human sciences" deal largely with the "reorganisation" of old ideas and are "characterised by high levels of recombination", I somewhat suspect that Adam Smith, a noted humanities graduate himself, might have had something slightly different to say on the issue than the bloggers of his Institute today.