What are economists researching today ?

During a recent interaction with some bachelors students of Economics, I posed a question; “Why are economists valued, if at all they are?”. While it was settled quickly that economists are valued (Duh! It was an economics class after all), the reasons presented for why they are valued was diverse and each had its merit . Later on, I was struck with a similar question which did not present an obvious answer; “What are the questions economists research and what is the use of those answers?”.

A majority of the reasons put forth by the students related to what economists were doing in the corporate sector or in public policy. Such a response quite natural as economists in public policy get a lot of media attention and most economics graduates and post graduates go to the corporate sector. As a budding researcher currently planning to make a career in academia, the question on what my ilk was doing and whether it will be considered valuable by society at large was to me much more than a matter of curiosity. This blog is an attempt to answer the first part of the question as to what are economists researching and I will let you be the judge of whether these are of interest to society.

How do economists decide what to research?

Technically an academician is free to research on whatever captures their interest. But, this freedom is limited to a large extent by concerns of publishing opportunity, citations and research funding. This would lead economists to consider those questions that editors of research journals would be interested in publishing or funding agencies would be interested to fund. Journal editors would want to increase the readership of their journal and so would make decisions to publish based on what they think most researchers would want to read. Funders naturally tend to fund that research which they think has most practical relevance or would have largest impact in the world. One striking example of this is the boom in academic conferences or journal articles being published related to the economic impact of Covid-19 in the last few months. An interesting meme doing the rounds was that the number of research papers on Covid-19 has surpassed the number of cases of Covid-19; a jibe at the obsession with publication of overall academia, rather than at economics research.

A joke looking like an innocent exponential graph.

So, it is to be expected that when academicians work on economic questions that can potentially secure funding and/or publication, they are in fact trying to answer the questions which the world in general is interested in.

How to understand what economists are researching?

There are multiple ways to understand what economists are researching. An obvious choice was to look at the articles published in the recent issues of top academic journals in economics. Articles to top research journals are usually submitted after multiple revisions and feedback after the initial draft is presented in conferences and also goes through a peer-review process and further revisions after submission. So, most articles in top journals today are research ideas economists have been toying with for 2-5 years. Another option which captures ideas of economists without lags are blogs and tweets. But these may also be passing musings and not questions economists are spending time researching. To strike a midway between timeliness and seriousness, I look at questions answered in working papers (What are working papers?).

Working papers are not final papers and are not peer-reviewed, but are pieces of work that the authors have put considerable time and effort on. The paper would then incorporate feedback and in some cases the final version that comes out in a research journal may even have different results from the initial working paper. Since my objective is not to understand what the final insights or results today are, but to understand what the major questions; the uncertainty of results in working papers is not problematic for my analysis. Working papers it shall be! But, which working papers?

Many institutions have their own working paper series to which contributions are accepted only from members of those institutions. But, there are few organisations who have a very wide membership base and their working paper series would therefore be a repository of the thoughts of a wide range of people. I chose to analyse the NBER working paper series.

NBER working paper series

The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) is a non-profit economics research organisation and has as members over 1400 professors from economics departments and business schools of universities across North America. Membership isn’t open to all or easy to acquire and it is safe to say that this a network of the top economists in North America (read USA). While academicians outside North America can also put out a NBER working paper if one of the co-authors is affiliated with NBER, there is clearly a bias in the papers on NBER’s portal. But given that a large amount of the research about the world is done today by professors in North America, this bias in authorship shouldn’t lead to a bias in the topics covered. For example, note that almost all the NBER papers on development economics are asking questions pertinent to Africa or South Asia.

NBER has twenty programmes (or areas) of research and each working paper is classified as belonging to one or more of these areas. The programs and the codes used to identify which program(s) a working paper belongs to are listed below. Note that some papers are also coded as ‘Technical working paper’ which is not a research area.

Sr. NoProgram codeProgram
1AGEconomics of Ageing
2APAsset Pricing
3CFCorporate Finance
4CHChildren
5DAEDevelopment of the American Economy
6DEVDevelopment Economics
7EDEconomics of Education
8EEEEnvironment and Energy Economics
9EFGEconomic Fluctuations and Growth
10HCHealth Care
11HEHealth Economics
12IFMInternational Finance and Macroeconomics
13IOIndustrial Organization 
14ITIInternational Trade and Investment
15LELaw and Economics
16LSLabor Studies
17MEMonetary Economics
18PEPublic Economics
19POLPolitical Economy
20PRProductivity, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship
21TWPTechnical Working Papers
The list of codes associated with NBER working papers

Now that we have an understanding of how I will try to answer the question of what economists are researching, let us get to the answer.

Most prominent research areas today

As of August 9th 2020, 1033 NBER working papers had been published in the year 2020. Since research interests in 2020 may be highly skewed due to the pandemic, I also look at the papers from 2019. 1188 working papers were published in 2019. So, a total of 2221 papers were analysed and the findings follow. Note that one working paper (WP) may be tagged to more than one research area. In fact that is mostly the case with In such cases, I count that paper multiple times, once within each area it is tagged to. So, the sum of papers across all areas in the following graphs will be much higher than the total number of WPs published that year.

Top research areas in 2019

Figure 1: WPs in 2019 by Program code

The top three research areas in 2019, and that by a huge margin, are Labour Studies, Public Economics and Economic Fluctuations & Growth. Development Economics and Monetary Economics follow to make the top 5. Another takeaway for me is that barring the top 3, there isn’t a glaring disparity in the number of papers in the other areas.

TOP RESEARCH AREAS IN 2020

Figure 2: WPs in 2020 by Program code

Except for one major change, research interests are similar in 2020. The top 3 remain the top 3 although the rank within the top 3 has changed for all three. One striking difference is that papers on Health Economics have seen a huge rise and is at No.4 and may even be the top area by the end of 2020.

gainers and losers

Comparing the number of papers in each area between 2019 and 2020 is not fair as we are only 8 months into 2020 and number of papers in most areas will be lesser than 2019. So, I look at the share of each area within all the working papers published in the year and the change in this share from 2019 to 2020.

Program
Code
Share in
2019 (in %)
Share in
2020 (in %)
Change in
% share
Health Economics5.018.353.34
Economic Fluctuations & Growth9.0010.541.53
Healthcare3.524.450.93
Corporate Finance4.795.650.85
Public Economics10.4910.970.48
Asset Pricing4.865.170.31
Monetary Economics5.155.250.09
Political Economy3.673.740.07
Development of the American Economy2.292.350.06
International Finance and Macroeconomics4.284.290.01
Economics of Ageing3.193.02-0.17
Law and Economics2.362.15-0.21
Technical Working Papers1.130.83-0.29
Industrial Organisation3.923.30-0.62
International Trade & Investment3.703.06-0.64
Productivity, Innovation, & Entrepreneurship5.054.37-0.67
Environment and Energy Economics3.412.62-0.79
Economics of Education3.742.94-0.80
Labor Studies10.749.90-0.84
Development Economics5.524.25-1.26
Children4.172.78-1.39
Table 1: Change in share of each research area from 2019 to 2020

As expected, Health Economics has seen the largest increase in interest followed by ‘Economic Fluctuations & Growth’ and Healthcare. The largest reduction has been in papers on Children followed by Development Economics.

Conclusion

The rise in research on Health economics and Economic Fluctuations & Growth reassures me that academic economists are a dynamic lot who identify the pressing questions the world faces and devote their times and energies to answer those questions.


I am grateful to the fellow research scholars in my department for the brainstorming before I set out to write this article. As the author, the final choice of which material to analyse and how to analyse was my own and so any concomitant limitations are my responsibility. I welcome your inputs on this.

Update (11 Aug 9:45 PM)

  • A feedback to this article from GVA Dharanan is that choosing to analyse NBER WPs alone creates a bias against microeconomics and he suggests that this article should therefore be titled “What are macroeconomists researching today?”

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