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Economics in Royal company - Hallowed scientific body opens door to social scientist

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By AMIT ROY in London
  • Published 5.07.04
Dasgupta: Milestone

London, July 5: Is economics a science? Yes, says the Royal Society, the most prestigious scientific body in the world; no, says Cambridge, the UK’s leading science university which still considers it part of the arts.

What might appear an arcane academic argument has suddenly assumed huge significance following the election of Sir Partha Sarathi Dasgupta, an economics professor at Cambridge, as a fellow of the Royal Society which was founded in 1660.

From Venice, where he has been attending a gathering of the European Association for Economists, a delighted Dasgupta told The Telegraph: “This is a bigger honour for me than my knighthood. I believe I am the first economist in 350 years of the Royal Society to be made a fellow.”

He added: “Until now, economists have been considered social scientists eligible for membership of the British Academy, of which I am a fellow, but not the Royal Society, which was only for scientists and mathematicians.”

Each year, the Royal Society can elect 44 new members, which this year includes Dasgupta.

An official statement from Cambridge University proudly declared: “He is the first economist elected to the Royal Society.”

Does that mean economics has now transferred from the arts to the sciences? The answer is yes — and no.

A spokeswoman for Cambridge University commented: “Economics is classed as an arts subject here but if you look at the course it includes a combination of mathematics, politics, economic history, sociology to name a few. Does that answer your question?”

Well, yes and no.

At Cambridge, all undergraduates, even those who read math and the natural sciences, end up with BAs since the university does not give out BScs. Within three years, the BAs are magically transformed into MAs for which graduates have to do nothing (except turn up to collect their MAs and eat strawberries and cream).

The explanation from the Royal Society is that it is widening its definition of science to recognise that modern economics includes “some areas of advanced math and analytical techniques”.

The statutes of the Royal Society were recently amended to enable it to recognise scholarship in several new disciplines, including “economics, demography, human geography, biological anthropology and social behaviour”.

However, to confuse matters, the spokeswoman disclosed that “while the statutes have changed, Sir Partha Dasgupta was nominated before these changes were made”.

The Royal Society citation said: “He is an economist who has made some uniquely outstanding contributions to several areas of environmental biology and ecology. He was one of the first economists to consider the role of natural resources in providing essential ecological services and his book, The Control of Resources, became a milestone in the history of environmental economics.”

Fellows of the Royal Society, who must be citizens or residents of Commonwealth countries — in all, there are 1,300 members, including 65 Nobel Prize winners — are entitled to use FRS after their name. The roll call includes Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Ernest Rutherford, Albert Einstein, Dorothy Hodgkin, Francis Crick, James Watson, Stephen Hawking — and now one Partha Sarathi Dasgupta, born 1942, the son of the late Professor Amiya Dasgupta (who once taught Amartya Sen).

The Society’s spokeswoman said: “The Royal Society seeks to recognise excellence in science, engineering and technology. Every year the fellowship election process is routinely reviewed to ensure that this happens —including in new and emerging areas of science.”

Discussing the changing nature of what could be considered science, the spokeswoman said: “One of the strengths of the Royal Society is the fact that it covers the full range of science, engineering and technology —this allows it to recognise inter-disciplinary areas of science. The Society also recognises there is an interface between science and the humanities and the social sciences — expanding the range of disciplines across which the Royal Society recognises achievement is a manifestation of this.”

Dasgupta lives with his wife, Carol, in Cambridge, where he has long been a fellow of St John’s, where the neighbouring college, Trinity, had Amartya Sen as Master until January this year. Dasgupta and his wife have two daughters and a son — Zubeida, 29 (“head of a junior school for children with special needs”), Shamik, 26 (“he is doing a PhD in philosophy at New York University”), and Aisha (“she is a third year undergraduate at University College, London”), who has just turned 21.

Like Dasgupta now, Bertrand Russell, a philosopher, was also a member of the Royal Society and the British Academy. “But he started out as a mathematician,” Dasgupta pointed out.

Asked whether his election meant economics could henceforth officially be classed as a science, Dasgupta thought for a moment and replied: “I don’t know what science means. We are classed as social scientists.”

Dasgupta said his work on sustainable development and rural poverty had particular relevance for sub-Saharan Africa and India. When he wrote a paper, he now made it a practice to put it on the Internet.

“Poor students in Africa and elsewhere, who cannot buy expensive books, can get to an Internet cafe and download it,” he said.

On population trends, he said couples in Italy had on average 1.3 children, in England the figure was 2.0 and in India “between 3.5 and 4”. But he would not be drawn on what he considered to be the ideal figure for India.