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Interview with Rachel Griffith

Ellie Bothwell
Newspaper article

Rachel Griffith is professor of economics at the University of Manchester and a research director at the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Her research focuses on people’s choices about what food to buy and eat. Last month, she was appointed president of the Royal Economic Society for 2019-20. She is the association’s first female president in more than 35 years and only the second woman to hold the post in the society’s 129-year history.

Where and when were you born?
I was born in Ithaca, New York on 16 May 1963 at exactly the time that Gordon Cooper was completing his 22 orbits of the Earth, breaking the record that I think he still holds for the longest solo flight in space. My mother always told me this story [to explain why] everyone in the delivery room was ignoring her during my birth.

How has this shaped you?
Being born in that place at that time has shaped my moral compass and given me a sense of civic duty. My parents were very active in the civil rights movement and anti-war activities – my father was a Freedom Rider, and my mother was among the first US citizens to travel to Hanoi to witness US bombing of civilians. I was too young to directly remember these events, but I grew up hearing stories about them, and they have definitely helped to shape who I am and what I care about.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
Very enthusiastic. I had dropped out of high school, worked as a waitress and travelled. I quickly realised that life was going to be tedious without an education. I sat the GED (a high school equivalency test) and got into the local state university. Because I had taken that time out, I absolutely loved being at university. I think the US education system works better for people like me; I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and the BA structure allowed me to try a wide range of subjects before choosing economics.

How can economics be better communicated to the public and politicians?
We are trying to learn how to be clearer and humble about what we know and, importantly, what we don’t know. We can be more engaging and accessible in the way we describe our work. A better understanding of economics would help people to make more informed decisions about their lives and to participate in important policy decisions. Better discourse with the public would also help to make economics and economists better at doing relevant research.

Have you had a eureka moment?
Twice a PhD student has brought me a picture that was amazing and led to some really interesting research. The first was a figure showing that the number of calories purchased in the UK has declined over the past three decades while obesity has risen. The other one is the variation in the healthiness of foods over the year, showing the striking decline in nutritional quality from January through to December. Both these have led to important research projects.

How will Brexit change the way we eat?
Hopefully not at all, because we will find a way to avoid this disaster. But if the worst does happen and we split from Europe, then it is likely that the prices of many foods will rise, and we know that prices affect people’s eating behaviours. We import a lot of food from the European Union (about one-third of what we buy in the supermarket). In addition, Brexit has led to a fall in the value of the pound, meaning that we have to pay more for foreign products. Food would be more expensive, which would particularly affect poorer households.

Do you feel your gender has held you back in academia?
No, not at all. In fact, it has possibly been an advantage, in that I am unusual and so probably more memorable. I have been lucky in a number of dimensions. I largely grew up with my father and two older brothers, so I’m used to being the only female in the room, which is common in economics.

What has changed most in higher education in the past five to 10 years?
Not so much in the past five to 10 years, but over the past 20 years things have changed a lot. The changing size and funding of the higher education sector has brought a whole lot of formalism and bureaucracy. Much of it is possibly necessary, but most of it I dislike and find that it squashes innovation in teaching and research. I buy much of my time out with research funding so that I can spend time at the IFS, an independent research institute, because there I have more control over how things are organised and the way things work.

If you were the universities minister for a day, what policy would you immediately introduce to the sector?
I would change the information that is available to A-level students choosing which subject to study at university. We have been doing a lot of outreach and widening participation work in schools, and there are terrible misconceptions about what economics is and what economists do. This is resulting in a very non-diverse set of students applying to do economics, and I am sure that there are similar misperceptions in other subjects. We should be providing students with a more comprehensive understanding of where different degrees can take them in life – not just financially, but in terms of their own life ambitions.

What’s your biggest regret?
That I didn’t choose a job that involved working outside. Long meetings and too much time travelling and sitting at a computer are what make me most unhappy.

This article was originally published in Times Higher Education and is reproduced here with full permission. Rachel Griffith is a research director at the Institute for Fiscal Studies. She was interviewed by Ellie Bothwell rankings editor and international reporter at Times Higher Education