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The Economist as Scientist, Engineer or Plumber?


  • Su, Huei-Chun
  • Colander, David
  • Assistant, JHET


Some well-known economists suggest that a good economist should act like an engineer, a surgeon, a dentist, or even a plumber. These metaphors are useful in helping economists reflect the nature of economics and their role in society. But which is the most sensible one? This paper argues that economists should be playing all these roles and more, because economics is not a single entity, and each entity has separate goals, methods, and boundaries. To take this multiplicity of roles into account this paper argues that in addition to the traditional boundary that delineates the disciplinary domain of economics against other sciences, an overarching boundary between economic science and applied policy needs to be recognized. It then examines Duflo’s economist as plumber metaphor and suggests that a better metaphor for Duflo’s purpose would be “general contractor”, a metaphor that, if accepted, would suggest radical change in training applied policy economists.

Suggested Citation

  • Su, Huei-Chun & Colander, David & Assistant, JHET, 2021. "The Economist as Scientist, Engineer or Plumber?," OSF Preprints c98mu, Center for Open Science.
  • Handle: RePEc:osf:osfxxx:c98mu
    DOI: 10.31219/

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Blaug,Mark, 1997. "Economic Theory in Retrospect," Cambridge Books, Cambridge University Press, number 9780521577014, December.
    2. N. G. Mankiw., 2009. "The Macroeconomist as Scientist and Engineer," VOPROSY ECONOMIKI, N.P. Redaktsiya zhurnala "Voprosy Economiki", vol. 5.
    3. Christian Leuz, 2018. "Evidence-based policymaking: promise, challenges and opportunities for accounting and financial markets research," Accounting and Business Research, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 48(5), pages 582-608, July.
    4. Béatrice Cherrier, 2017. "Classifying Economics: A History of the JEL Codes," Post-Print halshs-02735838, HAL.
    5. Roger E. Backhouse & Jeff Biddle, 2000. "The Concept of Applied Economics: A History of Ambiguity and Multiple Meanings," History of Political Economy, Duke University Press, vol. 32(5), pages 1-24, Supplemen.
    6. David C. Colander & Huei-Chun Su, 2018. "How Economics Should Be Done," Books, Edward Elgar Publishing, number 17588.
    7. Abhijit V. Banerjee & Esther Duflo, 2009. "The Experimental Approach to Development Economics," Annual Review of Economics, Annual Reviews, vol. 1(1), pages 151-178, May.
    8. John B. Davis & D. Wade Hands (ed.), 2011. "The Elgar Companion to Recent Economic Methodology," Books, Edward Elgar Publishing, number 13684.
    9. Beatrice Cherrier, 2017. "Classifying Economics: A History of the JEL Codes," Journal of Economic Literature, American Economic Association, vol. 55(2), pages 545-579, June.
    10. Keynes, John Neville, 1890. "The Scope and Method of Political Economy," History of Economic Thought Books, McMaster University Archive for the History of Economic Thought, edition 4, number keynes1890.
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    Cited by:

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    2. Hyytinen, Ari, 2021. "Shared problem solving and design thinking in entrepreneurship research," Journal of Business Venturing Insights, Elsevier, vol. 16(C).

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