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Political setback for new “Economics & Society” section in France

Plans to establish an administrative section on “Economics and Society” in the French university system have run into problems as the members of the existing economics section violently opposes it. Although the ministry of education had already promised the establishment of such sections plans have come to a halt.

Economics in France appears to be in fine shape. Recently, Thomas Piketty has enjoyed impressive sales of his book “Capital in the 21st Century” in the United States and the 2014 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics was awarded to Jean Tirole.

Nevertheless, beneath the surface a dramatic standoff is taking place in France, in which debates over how to organize the discipline has lead to heated controversy threatening to split the profession. The debate stands over whether to establish an alternative research section within the French university system: Some on the one hand, believe that more intellectual diversity may lead to innovation and new ways of thinking about economics and others, on the other hand, who believe that the establishment of new communities is simply a way to circumvent the traditional peer review and open the doors to relativism and obscurantism.

At the heart of the matter is a struggle for budgets and professorships as well as the public acknowledgement of research programs. In France, decisions on which professors get tenure are not decided locally as in many other countries, but by a central body under the French Ministry of Education called the National Council of Universities. This council has turned into the stage, in which this conflict is unfolding.

The brouhaha all began when the French Association for Political Economy convinced the Minister of Education to set up an experiment which would create a new section of the National University Council called “Institutions, economy, territory and society”. The experiment would run for 4 years and explore new approaches to economics ‘rooted in the social sciences’ and give room for otherwise marginalised ideas. The plan was to give room for teaching and research in the interplay between economics and sociology, history and political science, as well as the mathematical models that dominate traditional economics. This was intended to solve the problem that scholars who focus on these areas have difficulty getting tenure through the existing system.

Despite the simplicity of this solution, things got heated as soon as the people in the existing section of economics heard the news of this experiment. In Le Figaro, the board of the existing economics section threatened to collectively resign portrayed the new section as “a home for the failures and frustrated’” elements of economics. Nobel Laureate Jean Tirole wrote a letter to the minister harshly protesting the idea “to set up two communities in the same discipline.” He claimed that these “self-proclaimed heterodox” economists are simply refusing to follow the judgement of their peers if they do not engage in the usual evaluation by number of publications in top ranked journals.

However, it appears to be exactly the selection criteria of large American journals that the new section wants to oppose. In an open letter in Le Monde a long list of internationally distinguished scholars of economics and other social sciences retorted to these allegations and they did not at this occasion turn down the bellicose language: “The belief that one is absolutely right and all the others have absolutely nothing to contribute is suicidal. Have we forgotten the terrible failure of economists to warn the world of the 2008 crisis? Should we not react? Let it not be forgotten that for twenty years financial efficiency was proclaimed from the rooftops as the ‘economic proposition with the most solid empirical foundations’! “

At this point, the ministry has retracted on the plans to go ahead with the experiment. The situation appears to be in a deadlock. The situation in France should be of concern to all of us. We should take great care to avoid deep splits in the economics discipline. It is important to uphold a unified discipline that leaves rooms for the exchange and interaction of new ideas as well as evaluation criteria that everyone can agree on, but this cannot come at the expense of shutting down new, interesting, and necessary ideas.

The article is the expression of the views of the author alone.