Thursday, September 30, 2010

Follow Up on World Bank President Speach

Too often research economists seem not to start with the key knowledge gaps facing development practitioners, but rather search for questions they can answer with the industry's currently favorite tools.
                 -World Bank President Robert Zoellick at Georgetown University on Sept. 29.

I think this is exactly right and it is due to the incentives in academic research. Technique, cute identification strategies and novel experiments are emphasized and important questions are not.

I would think this because I had lots of trouble publishing a paper that sought to give some insight on a very important question in development: how does working as a child affect participants. I, along with a Brazilian colleague, looked at adult incomes of Brazilians based on when in life they started working to try and find out how young was too young to work based on this metric. We used sophisticated statistical techniques to try and identify a causal link and though such approaces are never perfect, we had a very defensible strategy and plausible and interesting results.  

I am happy to say it is being published by a very good journal, but it took a long time and it was rejected by some top journals while many little 'cute' papers that don't really help policy makers at all were.  What got me though was there was never a discussion of how important the research question was, or how useful our research was for advancing the knowledge of development, it was all focused on technique.

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