Let’s Talk about the NBER

The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) sent out its membership invitations this week. My twitter timeline quickly filled with explicit congratulations and oblique commentary. My private messages filled with…less than oblique commentary. Academia has always been hierarchical and economics has never been an exception. Talk of “top” departments and people is ubiquitous, but those categorizations remain fuzzy – “There are 40 departments in the Top 25” is a common adage. Aside from the obvious humor, I think there is also some healthy truth to it. There are lots of good departments and no one has any final say on who they are. Departments compete for recognition of contributions and the rewards that come from status in the profession. Having 40 or 50 “top 25” departments just means more status for everyone, which strikes me as nothing but welfare enhancing.

The NBER, on the other hand, has hard boundaries of membership. Though I doubt it was founded with any such intention, it has become the club within the broader profession that comes with more prestige than any other. Exclusionary clubs are not unto themselves problematic, but it is hard to shake the feeling that the advantages exclusive to NBER members are greater than ever.

For those who are sick of preamble, let’s start building a hypothesis. Academic economics has acquired some pathologies of publication and promotion that are creating an increasingly grumpy and anxious profession, particularly amongst our junior colleagues. These pathologies are manifest as broad public goods (e.g. timely evaluation and dissemination of research to inform tenure and promotion decisions, professional network development, the transition into a discipline more dependent on significant outside funding, etc.) that the discipline is consistently failing to produce.

The NBER is producing exactly these public goods. They didn’t create any of these problems, but for their members they may have solved them.

Originally founded as a research institute in 1920, largely to produce and disseminate macroeconomic data, the NBER has evolved into a collection of 20 research programs and 14 working groups, all built around a bureaucratic hub that has 100 years of institutional experience running research groups, disseminating research, and organizing events. It has a storied history and deserves every ounce of the prestige it both enjoys and bestows.

From the point of view of any scholar looking to get a research agenda off the ground, an affiliation with the NBER offers 4 key advantages or “club goods”:

  1. The prestige of listing an NBER affiliation at the top of your CV and on every paper you write and submit.
  2. Invitation to NBER conferences, most importantly the Summer Institute collection of meetings every July in Cambridge, MA.
  3. The option to channel your grants through the NBER instead of your home institution’s bureaucracy.
  4. Permission to disseminate your new papers through the NBER working paper series.

I would like to contend that all 4 of these privileges confer enormous advantages for any scholar, doubly so for young faculty. I am not contending that these advantages are unearned or even necessarily unfair, but I do think that they are often underappreciated in their magnitudes, and that this under-appreciation offers some insight into the frustration expressed by those on the outside. So let’s talk about them.

Signal value #1 may be the most or least important, depending on your point of view, but it’s definitely the least interesting. Every CV is filled with myriad signals, the NBER is just another one. In fact, the only aspect worth discussing is its seeming correlation with another key signal: PhD-granting institution. It seems, with nothing more than a glancing ocular regression, that being invited to join as a faculty research fellow (i.e. a pre-tenure affiliation) correlates heavily with having a Cambridge, MA PhD or having an PhD advisor at an elite institution who is themselves an NBER Research Associate (i.e. post-tenure member). There’s nothing inherently bad here, but this compounding of highly correlated signals is a little ominous for the outsider trying to get their own career off the ground. If exclusion from the club is unto itself what bothers you the most about the NBER, you’re missing the point and you should probably just get over it. And yourself, for that matter.

Conferences. #2 is more interesting because the NBER conferences, including the Summer Institute, are widely appreciated for the important networking events that they are. What I don’t think is as appreciated are how they relate to the journal reviewing process. First, if you hang out there long enough people will learn your name and face. While academic economics is famously rigorous and occasionally brutal in its seminar and reviewing culture, the fact remains that humans are more forgiving, more generous of the benefit of the doubt, once we put a face to a name. It’s just harder to be mean or assume the worst in someone once you’ve had a real conversation with them and confirmed their genuine humanity. Second, and this is probably more important, to present a paper at an NBER conference is to present to the pool your eventual reviewers will be drawn from and receive pre-submission referee reports. Being able to learn the perceived weaknesses of your paper before submitting to the magical top-5 and elite field journals is a prodigious advantage, particularly for scholars who don’t yet have a decade of experience trying to publish in their field.

Grant Management. Being able to funnel grants (#3) is probably both the most boring and most underappreciated of member advantages, particularly for scholars building research agendas at smaller schools that place more teaching and service demands on faculty. Being awarded a significant grant can be something of a curse to the pre-tenure scholar if their institution doesn’t have the internal human resources and institutional experience to manage a grant properly. Losing 15 hours a weeks to bureaucratic transaction costs is crippling. If I were trying to start a career running field experiments, I’d probably spend my first semester camped out on the NBER’s front porch like I was petitioning for admission to a Buddhist monastery.

Working Papers. Access to the working paper series (#4) is probably what would strike non-professors, or even just non-economics professors, as trivial, but is actually the most important. I know it’s what I want access too. Lets explain why:

Academic economics has a publishing problem. This is nothing new. What I think is underappreciated is that the NBER solved it for its members.

When the authors of a paper feel that its contribution has been established, that it can exist independent of any supplemental explication with tolerable risk of significant changes between now and its final form, they put it out into the world as a working paper. As the submission and review process has lengthened over the past few decades, the working paper stage of a project’s life cycle has grown in importance. It’s not crazy to suggest that most economics papers reach their total citations “half-life” while they are still working papers.

Whether that sounds crazy to your or not, however, doesn’t actually matter. What matters is that the timeline from first submission to acceptance at a journal continues to expand while the tenure clock remains fixed at 6 years. I’ve written before about how we might mitigate some of the problems in the journal publication process, but that’s a far less pressing concern if you are an NBER member because your papers enter the field as contributions through their NBER-branded working paper series years before acceptance at a journal. The prominence of NBER working papers is sufficient to the point that publication for members exists solely to provide additive signals of quality for long-term career tracks. The contribution itself, how it is internalized in the field and propogated forward within the authors’ research agendas, is adjudicated by the jury of the authors’ peers years before an editor acquiesces and agrees to sacrifice invaluable journal real estate as tribute unto the paper’s now long established contribution. Published papers are old news.

It is no less important that research also enters the seminar, media, and policy cycle as soon as it is disseminated as an NBER working paper. I’ve been in discussions where whom to invite to a workshop reduced for many to nothing more than scrolling through the previous 3 months of NBER working papers. Journalists subscribe to the series for ideas on columns and features. Thinktanks similarly fill their calendars of lunch talks and policy events. The authors will know if their project is a success, or if they are on the wrong track, months before their first rejection and years before their final acceptance. The world learns of them, their research, and their specific expertise through a channel entirely separate of formal peer review or historic outlet prestige.

The NBER solved the economics journal problem by disintermediating scientific debut and evalutation from the publication process. But again, only for their members.

Have I said enough about the working paper series? Let me summarize with a only a touch of hyperbole: if I ran a regression to find the determinants of expected citations, I would expect nothing on the right hand side of the equation, not university affiliation, not PhD-granting institution, not even journal ranking, would have a bigger coefficient than a binary indicator for was it an NBER working paper.

So what should we do?

First of all, I’m not a member, so there is no we about it. Second, I’m not sure we should do anything. It’s not my club, it’s been wildly successful, and just because some of us don’t get to enjoy it’s benefits doesn’t mean it should be changed. So, rather than complaining about the NBER or telling them what to do, I would like to suggest that the discipline has some public goods problems. and that the NBER might be able to contribute to mitigiating them.

One more thing to keep in mind – the club goods provided by the NBER are broadly characterized by decreasing returns to scale. Personal time and attention simply do not scale, which means the answers to most concerns will rarely lie in increasing broad membership or access (though I agree fully that the solution is without question inclusive of letting you in, as you are very smart and grossly underappreciated).

That all said, let’s now revisit the four NBER club goods currently exclusive to members.

#1. The prestigate of membership. I hope you didn’t read this far hoping I’d try to “solve status” in academia. That said, when an exclusive club acquires this much value, you have to expect that the process of admission is going receive all the more scrutiny. As a grossly uninformed outsider, the shadows I see on the wall of a cave from a considerable distance through a crack in the wall is an irregular nomination process that probably bottlenecks in some places while spreading idiosyncratically across networks in others. My guess is that a lot of people who are asked to provide 100 hours of attention in an already 70 hour work-week are effectively being tasked with filling in the next round of nominations. This leaves them with little choice but to take the path of least cost, and that path is making nominations of the former students they came across in their own hallways and those of their closest peers. Occasionally this also grants opportunties for gratuitous favortism and subsequent resentment. More importantly, though, in increases the tightness and redundancy of academic networks, furthering the gap between insiders and outsiders.

How do we fix this? We probably don’t, but here’s one thought: delay the nomination process. If this is the most prestigious club in economics, why are we nominating new PhD recipients before they’ve produced a research agenda? One way to make an institution’s admission process seem more transparent is to have criteria that are at least partially realized, rather than just subjective potential. It probably wouldn’t hurt to make nominators into publicly observable sponsors of record. Never underestimate shame as a tool for mitigating the various ills than can characterize an institution. (NB: these could actually be internally transparent. Remember: just because I am writing this doesn’t mean I am particuarly well informed)

#2. Conferences. An insider has sugggested to me that the Summer Institute used to be far easier to crash, but relented in the face of skyrocketing costs, flooded sessions, and problematic favoritism of local schools. Reiumbursing travel costs extended the radius of access, but also dramatically increased the cost per attendee to the NBER.

One suggestion: the NBER should only pay for the expenses of graduate students and junior faculty. Everyone else, including members, should pay their own way (or at least expense the trip to their home deparments). The hope is that this will make it easier for the NBER to subsidize access to non-members outside of the immediate ring of members. It may also be beneficial to prioritize non-members who have never previously attended. I’ll give you one more, and this works even better if membership nominations are delayed until later in careers: reserve presentation slots in the winter meetings exclusively for junior scholars and non-members.

#3 Grant organization I got nothing except maybe allow non-members to apply for grant-organization access. I mean, if there’s a scholar from a smaller school who’s already established a track record of outside funding in desperate need of institutional support for their research, this sure seems like a hell of a public good that the NBER could provide. Would a lot of people take advantage of it? I have no idea. But it certainly sounds promising and my guess is that it would actually net add to the NBER coffers.

#4 The working paper series. I’ve thought about it a lot, and this is what I’ve got: allow non-members to apply for “working paper series (NBER WPS) membership.” There’s simply no way around the fact the NBER itself cannot possibly scale to include every scholar who “deserves to be a member”. That said, I can’t help but think decreasing returns to scale are going ramp up a lot later for the working peper series.

The changes I imagine are relatively straight-forward. Scholars are allowed to apply for NBER WPS membership, submitting a CV and a recent working paper. If they are denied they cannot apply again for 3 years. If they are admitted they may submit papers to the WPS, on the understanding that the NBER reserves the right to apply a more rigorous review process than with full members and to deny any paper at their discretion. This isn’t a trivial cost proposition, mind you, and it would be entirely borne by the NBER, but they have access to sufficient human resources (cough graduate students) to provide cursory reviews of papers to make sure they are up to basic snuff, pushing potential questions up the chain when a paper might not be of a high enough standard. This would be an enormous service to the profession that they are in a unique position to provide.

In a final closing sentiment, let me state a few things that are probably obvious, but hell, you read this far. I have the luxury of being a tenured professor, so the consequences of these institutions are pretty minimal to me. But I’ve also been a bit of an outsider in the profession since the beginning. I was 9 years and two “top-5″s into my career before I got my first seminar invite, 10 years before I attended my first NBER summer institute. Which is to say I am sensitive to the frustrations of younger scholars who feel like there are walls between them and what they need to get their careers off the ground. We shouldn’t dismiss their genuine (and not unreasonable) anxiety as prestige envy or a grotesquely privleged version of populism. The discipline of academic economics has real problems, and if the NBER has figured out internal solutions to some of those problems, then I’d like to think they might be interested in spreading access just a little farther.

3 thoughts on “Let’s Talk about the NBER

  1. James Bailey May 2, 2022 / 9:15 am

    I wonder how much alternative institutions could step up and provide similar club goods. I certainly appreciate being able to post Federal Reserve working papers as a visiting scholar.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Scott Buchanan May 3, 2022 / 8:07 am

    Thorough, well-balanced treatment of a potentially contentious subject. Congrats on keeping it clear and constructive.


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