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Market-Based Solutions to Vital Economic Issues
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Nov 4, 2019

Institute Insights: A Requiem for Experts

By Kenan Institute Director of Research and UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School Richard Levin Distinguished Professor of Finance Christian Lundblad

Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is well known for high-quality business instruction for our undergraduate, MBA and Ph.D. students. However, what is sometimes less apparent is the link between the thought leadership that drives our educational success and the cutting-edge, yet pragmatic research that our world-class faculty undertake. As we celebrate University Research Week on the UNC campus, I thought it appropriate to take a few moments to address that side of our business (in a business school); in fact, from the perspective of Kenan-Flagler faculty, our international reputation is inextricably tied to the quality, relevance and creativity of our collective research agendas.

Research means more than sitting in one’s office with the door closed, imagining how many angels can dance on the head of a pin or punching away at data and code that don’t appear to be particularly proximate to the problems and questions with which various industry participants actually struggle. Rather, constructive research is an objective, often data-driven, investigation into a relevant issue or challenge so that facts can be established and conclusions drawn. Using the scientific method, research is an endeavor designed to as closely as possible uncover the truth via investigation or experimentation.

Now, to be honest, researchers do sometimes engage in ivory-tower navel-gazing endeavors. And, yes, there have been some well-publicized instances where the investigative process itself faced serious conflicts of interest. In no way do I diminish these limitations, but – to be crystal clear – the end goals of what I would call a real researcher are far purer and loftier. For business school faculty, these include: 1) asking and answering relevant questions that first define and then pierce the frontier of our knowledge; 2) building a capacity to appreciate the tradeoffs associated with various best practices – and even helping to move the needle on novel best practices going forward; 3) engaging with other constituencies beyond the academy – such as industry, policy makers, non-profits and NGOs; and, 4) developing a level of expertise that facilitates the defining, dissecting and, hopefully, solving of potentially vexing business, policy and social challenges. We are definitely not talking about navel gazing here.

At the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise – our business school-affiliated think tank for which I serve as the director of research – we pursue these end goals in an unbiased, disinterested manner by (among the many other cool things we do around here) helping to create resources to accelerate objective academic research, as well as translating the high-quality, rigorous, yet pragmatic research produced by Kenan-Flagler faculty for other constituencies such as industry, policymakers and others. We have always asked and answered questions related to, say, how firms and governments could think more carefully about the allocation of scarce resources or helping policymakers appreciate the unintended consequences of their actions. Currently, we are engaged in a multitude of novel efforts – just to name a few, an understanding of the growing opportunities and tradeoffs of technology in firms’ marketing, operational and financial decisions; an examination of the role of significant demographic changes or social responsibilities for businesses and policymakers; and an assessment of the extent to which the opioid crisis is affecting how firms interact with a significantly impacted labor market. These problems, and many others we are tackling, are real and hard, and experts – serious researchers who have devoted their professional lives to understanding them – are vital.

So, with all this is mind, indulge me for a moment as I lament the current state of our political dialogue as it pertains to experts. As we celebrate the central role of high-quality research at UNC in helping to solve the world’s most challenging problems, we have at the same time witnessed fast-developing political movements that appear to be in the business of dismissing experts’ potential contributions. As an example that I find particularly distressing, the Brexit referendum (and the immense worry expressed by many established researchers about the consequences of a potential exit) was preceded by high-profile leave proponents caustically dismissing the contributions of such experts to the debate. Experts do not have to be right all the time, but the care with which they approach a problem and the objective nature with which they draw conclusions must not be taken as equivalent to political hackery. Here in the U.S., certain (rather popular) members of both parties have played unusually fast and loose with established facts – even for politicians! Regrettably, our appetite for policy wonkishness – a careful understanding of intended and unintended consequences informed by careful research – is waning.

This brash willingness to ignore inconvenient conclusions drawn from experts’ research comes at a particularly bad time. We have major fish to fry, my friends. The global economy appears to be secularly slowing, and the challenge of making what growth we can squeeze out more inclusive in the face of rising inequality is immense. A failure to get this right will only further inflame the frustration that is being expressed in the political arena. Global trade, fiscal, and monetary policies are currently rather unorthodox – we need to understand their consequences and whether course corrections are warranted. By engaging in irresponsible fiscal behavior, the U.S. government is flirting with disaster. Worse yet, environmental degradation and climate change risks may be outright existential. Would we not want exactly those experts who have dedicated their lives to tackling hard problems in a serious manner deeply involved in possible solutions? Rather than dismiss experts, we desperately need their unfettered contributions. Expert research may be the only avenue through which we circumvent some of the dire consequences associated with the problems that currently plague society.

Learn more about research at the Kenan Institute, here.

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