Jonathan Pie, Austerity and Brexit

I wanted to share something that I guess I have held mostly for myself for a long time. This is a story about impact and the role that researchers can play in disseminating research through unconventional means. I get asked to share: how do you do it? How do you have impact? I guess one of the components is to simply not to care about impact and just keep on doing good work and be willing to share that work and explain it to other people. One of my more influential papers has been on the role of austerity in bringing about Brexit in the UK.

In 2019, the person that is behind the character that is Jonathan Pie came to visit me in Warwick University. He wanted to learn more about my research. And, well, I spend a whole day explaining my work. Of course, I also shared a bit my perspective of what is going on as a concerned individual that is very much worried about some of the direction of travel and the nasty dark underbelly that is associated with some of the Brexit arguments. It is difficult to cut through the noise.

A few months later I gave a public lecture in Berlin at the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change, after being invited by Ottmar Edenhofer. This was a long public lecture, I walked the audience through a lot of material. A lot of work that I just could not be bothered to write up but that I think could be a few more “cute” research papers. I also gave some “off the record” remarks on my own perception as a concerned individual. I do think that austerity was and is a big problem because of the context in which it happened and I hope to be able to do some more work on this over the coming years.

I then received an email from a PhD student who came across a video on Facebook that had gone viral big time. The email heading read: “a comedian is using almost all of your arguments in his sketch”. The email from the student asked: did you give him his script?

Of course, it would be presumptuous to say so. Jonathan has his own original style and well, much of my economics jargon requires translation. But he did record our 3 hour conversation or so and yes, it does feel like I can hear myself — at times — talking through Jonathan Pie. The sketch resonated with many people in the UK and it reached a huge audience of 6-7 million views on various social media channels. Naturally, this was not necessarily predictable, but it appears to have resonated with people.

I was a bit upset about the fact that he did not attribute the study. And I did email him and he rectified it. This is the way things work. What is the big message here?

If one gets too protective, ultimately, nothing ever gets out and progress is artificially slowed down. The fact that this work resonated with so many people is, because, well, austerity and its impact was just highly visible for many people to see in plain sight. I do think austerity also had upsides.

I am far from believing that a nanny state should take it on to run all goods and services. But, I also think that with digitization, the role that markets and prices play can be redefined in certain market places and the public sector, effectively, can become a platform provider and through that do smart industrial policy. This is something that I have tried to explain to (some) policy makers in some countries and well, those advising policy makers, for many years. It is bearing fruit in some countries now and given the climate crisis its more important than ever.

I did email Jonathan Pie to ask him for some attribution and he did do so. I have no hard feelings. I am glad the time we shared has been fruitful and I am glad that my work resonated with so many people and that it found a voice through him in a way that I could not give that voice to. This is how research can have impact. It is an organic process that starts by people just investing time in other people and by being willing to share.