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Canadian economics research is declining: study

This trend could make economics profession “irrelevant” in Canada, say the authors.


Economists at Canadian universities are publishing fewer articles on the Canadian economy and economic policy, a worrisome trend that could have serious consequences for the country’s students, policymakers and citizens, says a new study.

The study (PDF), recently published in the journal Canadian Public Policy, was conducted by Wayne Simpson, economics professor at the University of Manitoba, and Herbert Emery, economics professor at the University of Calgary. The two also wrote a companion piece with Stephen Tapp, research director at the Institute for Research on Public Policy, for Policy Options.

Dr. Simpson and Dr. Emery analyzed the publication records of 258 randomly-selected faculty members – one-third of all faculty members – in Canadian economics departments. They looked at more than 3,000 articles published in peer-reviewed journals from 1969 to 2011 and identified those with Canadian content.

Their analysis showed a declining share of journal articles that deal with Canadian issues, a trend that was particularly pronounced in the publication records of faculty members hired since 1990. Even after adjusting for their shorter careers, faculty members hired within the past 20 years had much lower rates of publication on Canadian issues than their more senior colleagues. The study also found evidence that researchers in Canada’s top 10 economics departments publish less on Canadian issues than those at other institutions.

The results didn’t come as a complete surprise because anecdotal evidence has pointed to such a decline for some time, said Dr. Simpson in an interview. What was noteworthy was the extent of the drop. “I think it’s perhaps stronger than we might have expected,” he said. The problem is likely to intensify as faculty members who were hired before 1990 begin to retire, said Dr. Simpson. “That group is dwindling and aging.”

Research with Canadian focus, by cohort

According to the study, the share of published articles with a Canadian focus was an adjusted 22.6 percent for the oldest cohort of economists hired between 1966 and 1980, compared to 18.5 percent for those hired between 1981 and 1990; 10.4 percent for those starting between 1991 and 2000; and 8.8 percent for those most recently hired between 2001 and 2010.

One factor behind the trend, according to the study, is the rising number of faculty members who obtained their PhDs outside Canada and who are thus less likely to publish on Canadian issues. But, the study revealed that even those who completed their doctoral degrees in Canada were less inclined to publish on Canadian matters.

The study points to hiring and tenure practices at Canadian universities as the most likely cause. Faculty members are under increased pressure to publish in the top economics journals, which are largely U.S. based and don’t generally publish work on Canadian topics. “People are responding to the incentives that exist,” said Dr. Simpson.

The pressure to publish in top journals has intensified as global and domestic rankings of institutions and departments have gained prominence, he added. These rankings are based in large part on research output of faculty members, including where they publish and their citation counts. Canadian economic journals don’t feature prominently in these measures, Dr. Simpson noted. Universities and departments, under pressure to improve their standing in the rankings, are placing more emphasis on publishing in top journals when making hiring, tenure and promotion decisions.

“Department rankings based on a narrow set of journals have distorted hiring decisions, research grant funding decisions, and graduate programming in ways that do not serve the interests of Canadian society,” Dr. Simpson and Dr. Emery write. “We use large amounts of tax dollars to support research into and teaching about other economies so that our economists can be influential in other countries but not in Canada. Academics doing research on and teaching about the Canadian economy would provide more value to the Canadian taxpayer at a lower cost.”

Dr. Simpson said that the Canadian taxpayer expects “some payoff that is tangible,” in other words, research on issues that are relevant to Canada and can inform public policy decisions. He said students are also losing out by being taught abstract economic theory and knowledge that isn’t applicable in the Canadian context.

Another contributing factor to the decline in Canadian economics research is the reduced availability of Canadian data, said Dr. Simpson. He argued that the federal government has done “a fair amount of disservice to the social science community,” referring to the elimination of the mandatory long-form census and to budget cuts at Statistics Canada. These measures didn’t create the problem but “aggravate” an already established trend, he said.

The study notes that the decline in Canadian economic research in economics departments has been slightly mitigated by an increase in the number of economists who are studying Canadian issues in other venues, including schools of public policy, business schools and think tanks. This work wasn’t captured by the study, but it concludes that the overall pool of researchers who focus on Canadian issues is diminishing. This trend risks making the profession “irrelevant,” say the authors.

To reverse the trend, Dr. Simpson and Dr. Emery call for research funds to be redistributed to encourage the study of Canadian economics, in the way research on Canadian immigration issues was encouraged by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council’s funding of the cross-disciplinary Metropolis project. The authors also hope that their findings will draw attention to the issue among their colleagues.

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