Economic Research at Harvard Recently Aided by $150,000 Grant from the Rockefeller Foundation

Incorporation of Harvard Economic Society Left Harvard University Committee on Economic Research Without Assets--Terms of Grant Provide for Just Such Investigation as Department of Economics Visualized

The following article on Economic research at Harvard by C. J. Bullock, George F. Baker Professor of Economics, and Chairman of the Harvard University Committee on Economic Research, is reprinted from the current issue of the Alumni Bulletin.

Fourteen years after Charles F. Dunbar was appointed Professor of Economics in Harvard University, the first provision was made for promoting economic research. In 1885 the Department of Economics received from Mr. John Eliot Thayer a gift of $15,000 for publication and research, which made possible in 1886 the establishment of the Quarterly Journal of Economics, the first periodical in the United States devoted exclusively to that subject. Under the editorial charge first of Dunbar and then of F. W. Taussig, the new Journal immediately made a distinguished place for itself in the economic world. Without closing its pages to anything of scientific interest, it has, during the forty-four years of its existence, given the preference to contributions of permanent rather than ephemeral value, especially in the field of economic theory, where for more than a generation it has been able to offer leading thinkers of all countries as much space as might be required for the presentation of their views.

Development not Isolated

This development at Harvard was not an isolated event. Interest in the social sciences was on the increase everywhere in that decade, as is shown by the fact that in 1886 the American Economic Association (established in 1885) began the issue of its early monographs, while the Faculty of Political Science of Columbia began publication of the Political Science Quarterly. It may be noted also that three years later the American Statistical Association established its present quarterly publications, while in 1890 the American Academy of Political and Social Science at Philadelphia commenced the issue of its Annals. Evidently there had been a great stirring of the waters. Whereas in 1885 few means of publication were available to students of the social sciences other than the printed book, the next five years provided outlets which were to prove more than ample for the supply of first-class material and were to lead, a decade later, to proposals for a grand merger which should do away with institutional rivalry and, it was hoped, raise the quality of economic publications.

Wells Bequest in 1902


At Harvard the next development was the David A. Wells bequest in 1902, which, beside providing for a professorship in economics, enabled the Department to offer an annual prize of $500 for the best thesis embodying the results of original investigation by members of the senior class in Harvard College and graduates, of not more than three years standing, of any department of the University, the subject to lie within the field of economics or some adjacent field, and the thesis to be published by the University. While this bequest did not provide funds for research it did provide means of publishing the best theses written by students in the Department of Economics, and so stimulated interest in such work.

Bureau of Business Research

With the establishment of the Business School, a Bureau of Business Research was created in 1911 for the primary purpose of aiding instructors in the collection and analysis of materials for teaching. From its beginning the Bureau has carried on a series of statistical and other studies which, although designed chiefly to develop instruction in business administration, contain much of interest to the economist and are therefore appropriate to mention in this survey. Even more important for our present purpose is the fact that the Department of Economics had the same need as the Business School of provision for gathering materials for teaching, though this had never been recognized by the University, so that the establishment of the Bureau of Business Research gave a useful object lesson.

Department Needs Set Forth

In 1914 the Department of Economics, realized how inadequately it was equipped not only for scientific investigation but even for securing the necessary materials for instruction, authorized the Chairman to present the subject to the President of the University, with the result that in 1915 the Harvard Graduates' Magazine published an article upon "The Need of Endowment for Economic Research," in which the needs of the Department were fully set forth. In substance, the situation was that the modern economist was expected to make bricks without straw. Apart from the usual library facilities, the instructor in economics at Harvard, as at other universities, was expected to find materials for teaching and research as best he could and at his own expense. The personal and professional contacts, the knowledge of the field not to be derived from books, the search for data, the subsequent classification and analysis involving much routine work of a purely clerical character, the money for travel and stenographic expenditures, and all other things needed for the best results, he must manage as best he could. So long as economics was treated as a branch of moral philosophy and taught in a single course of one term out of an elementary textbook by the Alvord Professor of Natural Religion. Moral Philosophy, and Civil Polity, endowments for economic research were unnecessary; but in the second decade of the twentieth century it was evident that the Department of Economics was literally in the position of the servant expected to produce his tale of bricks without any substantial supply of straw.

Plight of Department

Moreover, the plight of the Department was in glaring contrast with the condition of those departments concerned with the natural and physical sciences, in which it had long been a matter of course that money for research was a plain necessity. Yet economic research, properly conducted, is as expensive as research in any other field, and probably more expensive than in most others. The collection of the primary materials is often wholly beyond the ability of the individual investigator, and the subsequent analysis and study of data, always becoming more minute and laborious and involving much work of a purely clerical character, makes impossible demands upon the time and strength of an individual worker even though he have no other duties inside or outside the University. Moreover, time runs against him, for his materials are in the highest degree mutable. Some things, indeed, do not change. The law of diminishing returns is not likely to be modified in the near future, even by act of Congress or a national committee organized with headlines in the Monday papers for the purpose of discovering whether, in this new era, two and two may not make five. But such things as laws and institutions, methods of production, available natural resources, number and distribution of population, are in constant state of flux, so that the economist's task is never done. His materials must ever be collected anew, and his work ever repeated; the economic order changes, and the living specimens of today become in a few years the fossil remains of a bygone age. We are speaking, it will be noted, not of changes in theories but of mutations in the phenomena with which theories deal in no field, probably, does the scientist have to deal with phenomena that change so generally and rapidly as in that of the social sciences, to which economics belongs.

Research Endowment Suggested

As a beginning in the very large work of providing adequately for economic research, the article in the Graduates Magazine suggested the endowment of research assistantships which would enable the University to give professors competent assistants like those provided for investigators in other fields. It also suggested that funds might be secured for the investigation of particular subjects that happened to be of timely interest. In conclusion, it pointed out that the first step is usually the hardest. The endowment of economic research at Harvard or any other university is a thing that can be finally and conclusively justified only by its results, while such results, in turn, are impossible without an endowment the necessity of which is not generally recognized. With hope, therefore, but without confident expectation, the Department of Economics brought its claim to the attention of friends of the University in 1915; and there the matter rested for a couple of years.

Committee Appointed