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The RES 2020 Annual Conference — a report from the Programme Chair

Sadly, 2020 will be remembered for the ‘Conference that never was’. In this article, Mirko Draca1 reports on some of the highlights that we missed and acknowledges the efforts put in by so many before the Conference was cancelled.

Well, RES 2020 was not to be. I’d like to thank everyone involved in the organisation of the 2020 conference. The preparations were made efficiently and collegially. And extraordinary grace under pressure was shown in the run up to the cancellation decision as astoundingly disruptive events like the FlyBe collapse unfolded. We’ve made arrangements to use as many organisational inputs as possible for the 2021 conference.

I'd like to highlight some of the sessions that we had planned because they represent important directions that research in economics is taking. Crucially, they are also areas where there is a lot for the profession to contribute to modern public policy. The 2020 programme was also designed to provide some room to think about the economics discipline in more fundamental terms.

Amelia Fletcher (UEA) organized a Plenary Session on ‘Big Tech: Regulation or Competition Law’ featuring Jacques Cremer (Toulouse), Rikke Riber Rasmussen (Google) and Mike Walker (Competition and Markets Authority). Concentration has emerged as a major concern in a range of multi-sided platform markets and companies in leading positions in these industries are also coming to dominate stock markets. There’s been a wave of research recently in industrial organization that has been studying these problems, often harnessing novel data and putting forward challenging policy conclusions. The aftermath of the November US election is a potential turning point in policy, especially on big anti-trust issues.

The 2020 programme also featured a major focus on climate change and environmental economics. It's an unusual feature of the profession that environmental economics is not necessarily seen as a ‘mainstream’ field. Three Special Sessions were organized on: ‘Climate Change and Inequality’ (Organisers: Niall Farrell (Potsdam) and James Rising (LSE)); ‘Biodiversity’ (Partha Dasgupta (Cambridge)); and the ‘Economic Analysis of Energy and Climate Policy’ (David Newbery). The session on biodiversity was of special note for its link to the Independent Review on the Economics of Biodiversity, whose interim report was published in late April. The recommendation has been made to also have a focus on climate change and environmental economics in the 2021 Conference.

There was also a cluster of sessions on behavioral and experimental economics, including the topic of wellbeing. These include ‘Social Identity and Discrimination’  and ‘Motivated Reasoning’ (both organized by Deputy Chair Friederike Mengel), as well as ‘Extremes of Well-Being’ (Andrew Oswald). This area of the profession has had an especially high public profile in the last 10 years and personally I see work such as that put forward in the Motivated Reasoning session as a fundamental input for navigating the challenges to incentives and behaviour that seem to have been unleashed by social media.

Finally, I'd like to highlight two sessions that we had planned that were about the nature of economics —’What Should an Economist Know’ (organised by Wendy Carlin) and ‘Mainstreaming Heterodoxy’ (Michael Jacobs). If I may push a hobby-horse, I think the fundamental intellectual breadth of economics as a discipline has been forgotten a bit in the last 30 years (yes, I count at least 30 years based on my reading).

In principle, our discipline is one that has intellectual diversity and interdisciplinarity built into its DNA. A good economist has to have great quantitative skills and a capacity to get across other fields as diverse as history, psychology and computer science. Economics should be the great ‘connector’ discipline both within the social sciences and between in terms of relations with the hard sciences. We should be able to bridge what the novelist (and chemist) C.P Snow called the ‘Two Cultures’.

I think a big engine for doing this could be a more conscious appreciation of how much we are borrowing from other disciplines as students progress through the standard economics curriculum. Another mechanism could also be a reinstatement of the history of economic thought into curricula. I was fortunate enough to be exposed to such knowledge early in my education and it's been an indispensable compass. These two planned Special Sessions were meant to get that kind of debate going. The current Covid-19 crisis has of course seen a big shift in teaching modes towards virtual learning. This could an impetus for more general changes in what we teach. I also think that a hard look at this issue of what we teach could help facilitate social inclusion and diversity that has been such a big focus of professional debate in the last couple of years.

Thanks again to the RES 2020 organisational team. Barring another pandemic or other type of mega-crisis, at least this year will be marked by an exceptional note in the Society’s history. See you in 2021!

Note

1. Director of the Centre for Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, University of Warwick.