World Bank President starts brawl about development economics research

UPDATE 4:30 PM, Sept 30 -- debating Ravallion about World Bank censorship (see end of post) World Bank President Robert Zoellick gave a speech at Georgetown University today calling for the "democratizing" of development research.  Bob Davis at The Wall Street Journal reports some reactions:

Nobel Prize-winning economist Michael Spence, who led a commission on economic growth, said Mr. Zoellick's comments are "generally not only in the right direction, but very useful." Harvard economist Dani Rodrik.... also praised the World Bank president. "The speech hits all the right notes: the need for economists to demonstrate humility, eschew blueprints...and focus on evaluation but not at the expense of the big questions," Mr. Rodrik said.

But the reaction wasn't unanimous. New York University economist William Easterly...called Mr. Zoellick's comments "amazingly presumptuous." He says the current system of economic research, where ideas are picked apart by other economists, works well. If anything, he says World Bank economists are often the exception because their bosses pressure them "to reach the 'right' conclusions," Mr. Easterly said—meaning that World Bank loans are useful and foreign aid is productive.

The World Bank's chief of research, Martin Ravallion, responded, "I have never been told what conclusions I should reach, and I doubt very much that anyone told Bill Easterly what conclusions he should reach in his many years working for the Bank's research department."

That's OK, Martin, you must have been on vacation when the World Bank pushed me out the back door for not reaching the right conclusions on aid.

Mr. Zoellick, a moderate Republican who pushed for trade expansion as U.S. Trade Representative, also said that researchers should keep an open mind about whether countries can benefit from heavy doses of industrial policy.

That won praise from Mr. Rodrik, who has long pushed that view, and opposition from Mr. Easterly. "The most extreme advocates of industrial policy have lost the argument in the free and fair competition of ideas" Mr. Easterly argued. "Zoellick is trying to politicize it" by making it a bigger part of a World Bank research agenda.

UPDATE: see Martin Ravallion's comment below denying World Bank censorship, here is my response.

Martin, you are being disingenuous in what you do NOT say. Yes, I agree that if any given World Bank researcher sticks to publishing in academic journals, the findings do not spread to general public awareness, and, most importantly, the researchers themselves make no attempt to publicize their findings, then the researchers can say (ALMOST) anything they want (ALMOST because even then there have been exceptions and SOME politically sensitive findings would still be out of bounds). I myself did this for many years.

But once a researcher makes an effort to communicate with a broader audience beyond the tiny number who read academic journals, then any such statements are subject to censorship, as I found in my own experience personally, and others with whom I have communicated (unfortunately, they will not allow me to use their names) have verified similar experiences. So the World Bank researchers' participation in the "democraticized" debate, which President  Zoellick says he wants, is still subject to censorship. I can't believe you can really claim to deny this.

Moreover, the World Bank produces many public non-academic reports itself based on research findings. These reports' conclusions are politically influenced and censored. Again I cannot believe you would deny this.

But thank you, Martin, for taking the time to engage in a dialogue on this. I do believe the research done for academic journals in the World Bank has generally been of high quality and meets standards of academic rigor.

best, Bill