Simon Burgess: understanding the world with imperfect information

Simon Burgess is a Professor of Economics in the Department of Economics, University of Bristol. He was the Director of the ESRC Centre for Market and Public Organisation (CMPO) 2004 – 2015, and the Director of the Centre for Understanding Behaviour Change (CUBeC) 2010 – 2014.

Professor Simon Burgess
Why did you pursue an academic career?

It’s hard to say now, at this considerable distance. I really enjoyed economics, and enjoyed using that to understand data, and I really enjoyed doing the research I wanted to. An academic career seemed the best chance of keeping on doing that. Plus obviously the attractions of not having to wear a suit, not (really) having a boss, and not always having to go into the office!

What career achievements are you most proud of?

There are some research programmes and individual papers that I’m proud of, as well as some very long-running research collaborations. But I guess the biggest thing is the Centre for Market and Public Organisation at the University of Bristol, and leading the team of researchers and administrators that took the centre to national prominence. We have done some great research and we have had a major influence on the public debate and on policy formation in reforming public services.

What is the most important issue society is facing today?

If there has to be just one, I would probably pick climate change and all the things that flow from it. But if I could have another, I’d say inequality and social (im)mobility. Present levels and trends do not feel sustainable, and it is important that these are reversed. Research on understanding and reforming education in England is a contribution to that agenda.

What do you feel is the most important finding of economics and social science over the past 50 years?

I would not presume to pronounce on social science outside economics. Within economics, I would say that the revolution in understanding the world through the lens of imperfect information has to be one of the most transformational changes. It changed almost everything.

Outlook at 50: As part of marking ESRC’s 50th anniversary we have asked a selection of leading ESRC-funded researchers to share impressions from their own careers and thoughts on the role of social science in society.

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