April 2018 newsletter – Launch of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy

The launch of this new interdisciplinary institute, based at the University of Cambridge, is scheduled to take place just as this issue of the Newsletter is distributed to readers. Diane Coyle, Bennett Professor of Public Policy, explains the thinking behind the initiative.

April 16th brings the formal launch of this inter-disciplinary public policy institute, with a one day conference that includes: economists and social psychologists on the obstacles to effective policies addressing poverty and inequality; urbanists, planners, and architects on the economic role of cities; a perspective from policymakers on defining and measuring the aims of public policy and progress against them; and two of the UK’s leading technologists, Mustafa Suleyman of DeepMind and Baroness Martha Lane Fox of Doteveryone on the impact of technology on society.

A growing number of universities are establishing public policy centres and teaching programmes, following a long-established trend in the United States, and also perhaps reflecting the impact agenda in the REF. Our Institute for Public Policy will draw on Cambridge's depth and breadth of research in science and technology alongside the social sciences. There is surely substantial scope for more effective policy development by embedding social science alongside the natural sciences and technology in research and policy analysis.

The Institute’s first director is Professor Michael Kenny; I have recently joined as the Bennett Professor of Public Policy. Our initial research programmes will be: place and public policy, including an ESRC-funded project, Between Two Unions, on the constitutional future of the UK and Ireland; technology and innovation including a project on the digital state; science and democracy, including a partnership with Churchill College and Cambridge’s Centre for Science and Policy to explore the role of expertise in policy-making; and well-being, progress and policy.

It will be evident that each of these is inherently inter-disciplinary and facing outward to the policy world. I have long believed it essential for economists to engage with the wider research and policy communities, and the public too. Our discipline holds an influential position in policy-making and political debate, and yet our reputation has taken a hit post-crisis – and post-Brexit vote – from which it has not yet recovered. Economists' legitimacy to advocate and influence policies requires the profession to engage in more dialogue with others outside it, and more and better communication. There was indeed a session on Economic Communication at the Royal Economic Society's Annual Conference on 26th March. 
There are also of course many open research questions in a range of policy domains, and the potential to achieve a truly inter-disciplinary approach to the complex challenges of today’s world is a prize well worth aiming for. This will certainly be our intention as our Institute expands.

The entire research community also has a civic responsibility to work in ways that deliver benefits to society, from our local towns and cities to the nation and beyond our borders. It is an exciting time, a challenging time, to be launching our Institute; we hope to have many opportunities to work collaboratively with economists and other colleagues elsewhere on major policy challenges.