Kevin Le Merle and Rithika Alexander

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While the 2019 Scottish Economic Conference organised by the Glasgow Economic Forum (GEF) seemed more geared towards Finance and Business students, the 2020 rendition finally came into its own by advocating interdisciplinarity and focusing on well-being. This shift parallels a welcome paradigm-change in the policy-making process at large, where it is no longer simply about economic value, but what that means for people. This year’s conference was attended by students from very diverse backgrounds, whether it be aerospatial engineering, or marine biology. Many of the attendees from more scientific backgrounds were attracted by the cutting-edge and forward looking climate-crisis related content. The GEF’s goal of “understanding our complex world through economics” successfully shows that economics has a lot to say about relevant issues, and can bring about positive social change.

Dr Matthew Agarwala, Lead Researcher on the Wealth Economy Project from the Bennett Institute of Cambridge University, described the conference as continuing the tradition of Scotland’s pioneering role in the field of economics. He stated, “20th century statistics won’t deliver 21st century sustainability, we need to change the way we measure and define progress as a profession.”

GEF highlighted fundamental new research frontiers without failing to consider their practical applications in the policy interface. Dr Agarwala especially celebrated the emphasis placed on women in Economics as something that was long overdue in the field.

This prominent social issue was tackled by Sarah Smith, Professor of Economics at the University of Bristol and co-chair at Royal Economics Society, who laid emphasis on the lopsided gender imbalance permeating the Economics climate within which women are lagging behind tremendously. Although the share of women in the US and UK that persist in Economics has seen gradual increases, the rate of growth is still staggeringly slow.

Professor Smith suggested that the root of the predicament boiled down to the question: why do girls not choose Economics? Women are found to be less likely to pursue Economics, which is largely perceived to be due to the intimidating rigour and discouraging mathematical structure the study of Economics might entail and that “women simply do not like Maths”. On the contrary, several studies have found that there are more women in Maths undergraduates (STEM) than Economics, rendering the “pipeline metaphor” especially ineffective.

She stressed several factors that possibly contribute to the under-representation of women in Economics, namely, socio-economic reasons that lead to an extremely restricted “choice-set” and lack of “economic literacy” of the real-world implications of the subject. What is interesting is that Economics seemingly suffers from an “image problem”. Apart from being viewed as a predominantly male-occupied, number-crunching field, the technical jargon can be off-putting and is widely regarded as rather dismal. Studies also reveal shocking discrepancies such as the “proportion of discrimination in Economics against sex is higher than race” and “Economics treats women worse compared to other disciplines in terms of promotions, pay gaps and competing clocks, both tenure and biological”.

Undoubtedly, male and female economists tend to adopt significantly different approaches. Women have skills and talents that aren’t being wholly utilised and fewer good ideas leads to a skewed perspective. The world of knowledge and ideas is rudely halved in potential, impeding any real progress. Women would add to the heterogeneity, influencing the type of questions raised by economists, ultimately affecting the quality of research.

Forums such as the GEF serve as a fulcrum in bringing prevalent issues such as these to the forefront. The silver lining is the heightened sensitivity that gender discrimination has garnered over the years, and the level of attention being paid in a bid to increase concerted efforts towards solving the problem of female figures missing from classrooms, textbooks and academic circles. Professor Smith added that investing in economic literacy would bring higher payoffs and the discipline can surely work more on its appeal, benefiting the gender-vulnerability considerably even if it merely means being able to pick up the newspaper and understanding the Financial Times.

Professor Graeme Roy, Director of the Fraser of Allander Institute, would like to see economists collaborating more with other disciplines, and highlights that the GEF is a place where the fruits of those collaborations are demonstrated. “It’s a great opportunity for students to see what real policy-practice is like. They also get to network and meet with their peers. It’s vital for us all to shed biases, and it’s important to be careful not to assume others are wrong when you disagree with them. I encourage young people to keep an open-mind.” Dr Otto Kässi commented, “It’s fun to see so many young and unspoiled minds! I was very impressed by the organisation, it was much smoother than some more ‘official’ research conferences.”

On Saturday, the talks stressed new research frontiers, like the digital labour market for instance, and for good cause: the digital and online labour market is growing and will keep doing so. Understanding and researching how it functions can help people navigate the quagmire of online certifications and star ratings and give policy-makers a handle on improving the social situation of temporary and casual workers.

Statistical agencies are caught off-guard in this relatively new and fast emerging-job market. Dr Otto Kässi threw light on the problems of an increasingly digital labour market such as tax evasion, absence of “online work” as a formal category and failing to factor in the possibilities of working two jobs. There also exists a certain reluctance on the part of freelancers to report their nature of work and the persisting difficulty of capturing data for labour market statistics in developing countries. Conclusions drawn suggest the need for a formal definition of what counts as a “job” in order to enable policymakers to take cognizance of the “gig economy” and encapsulate the growing trend of “online freelancing”, productively.

Alongside Dr Kässi and Professor Roy, Gary Gillespie, Scottish Government Director and Chief Economic Adviser, explained the importance of evidence-based policy-making: “Policy-making is a jigsaw puzzle of evidence, you need evidence every step of the way and you need to fit the pieces together.” He also praised the technical questions expressed by University of Glasgow students during the panel’s allocated Q&A.

After Sir Anton Muscatelli, Chris Siakkas, one of the organisers of the original 2015 GEF spoke at the Saturday night gala to congratulate this year’s team on their valiant performance: “I think it’s incredible how this initiative has successfully continued and stood the test of time for five years.”

Sunday was animated by crucial climate-crisis related talks, culminating in a show-down between a realist, Professor Ghosal, and a “conditional optimist” Professor Agarwala. 

One criticism that can be levelled at the GEF would be the technicalities and mathematical jargon that were sometimes employed by speakers. These often seemed unnecessary and restricted understanding to specialised students. Sadly attendance was deeply impacted by the coronavirus, on the sides of both speakers and students. The organisers did a brilliant job despite difficult circumstances.



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