Grattan Institute's 2021 Wonks' List - Grattan Institute

In addition to our 2021 Prime Minister’s Summer Reading List, our annual “Wonks’ List” highlights some of the year’s best technical policy reads, for anyone who wants to take a deeper dive.

The Old Boys’ Club: Schmoozing and the Gender Gap

Zoe Cullen and Ricardo Perez-Truglia

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Even today, the `old boys’ club’ pervades society. A quick look at who runs political parties, company boards, or holds high-ranking positions makes this clear.

And as Zoe Cullen and Ricardo Perez-Truglia show, women have a harder time climbing the corporate ladder, because schmoozing is a men’s game.

By studying administrative and survey data in a large company, Cullen and Perez-Truglia pick apart how the gender of employees and managers dictates the likelihood of a promotion. They find that when male employees are assigned to male managers, they rise faster up the corporate ladder. This is particularly true if the employees and managers spend more time together.

No so for women. Even when female employees are assigned to female managers, Cullen and Perez-Truglia find no change to promotion rates.

This clever piece of research puts numbers and evidence to well-known and widely accepted ideas. While it doesn’t pretend to hold solutions, it makes clear the extent to which the old boys’ club contributes to the gender gap.

Slowed canonical progress in large fields of science

Johan S. G. Chu and James A. Evans

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In science and academia, the conventional wisdom is that more is better. Even if incremental, more research and more publications should build a knowledge base – eventually leading to a cascade of insights.

But as Johan Chu and James Evans argue, in large fields of science, an overwhelming number of research papers may be hindering, not helping, research progress.

By examining 1.8 billion citations among 90 million academic papers, they argue that the publication of a large and growing number of papers hinders the chance that a novel paper can be noticed and cited. Instead, fields may stagnate – focusing on older, often-cited papers and becoming ‘trapped in existing canon’.

Our academic institutions are built around ideas of ‘research output’. Chu and Evans argue that this has troubling implications for our priorities in scientific fields. And although changing the status quo may be impossible in the short term, the authors hold hope that there’s room to move, by making small changes to the way scholarship is conducted.

How the world ran out of time

The Sydney Morning Herald

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Talk of climate change tends to be forward looking. To 2030. To 2050.

But as the Sydney Morning Herald team behind ‘How the world ran out of time’ show, our climate has already warmed by 1.1oC. And the impacts are devastating. 

Region by region, the team highlight the destruction caused by a warming climate. From fires in Australia to floods in Indonesia, a concise combination of animation, data, writing, and videos paints the costs all too clearly.

The team argue that after losing decades of policy progress to the politics of the climate wars, Australia needs to step up as a part of the solution – in a ‘race we cannot afford to lose’.

No single piece of work can truly capture the scale of climate change. But the SMH team give it a good shot. By focusing neither on purely personal stories, nor on abstract statistics alone, the combination of media uniquely captures global, regional, and personal perspectives. The result is a harrowing snapshot of what it is like to live on a warming planet.

Moral uncertainty: A case study of COVID-19

Trisha Greenhalgh

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COVID-19 has thrown many nightmarish dilemmas at us. Professor Trisha Greenhalgh from Oxford University had one of her own: whether to visit her dying mother, who had COVID, in hospital, when she herself is immuno-compromised. Greenhalgh is torn. Is it or is it not ‘morally permissible’ to go?

In her article for the November 2021 issue of Patient Education and Counselling, Greenhalgh brings all her expertise to bare on a very particular personal example of the moral questions COVID forces us to grapple with.

Her situation goes to the heart of our universal experience with the pandemic: How do we best balance the responsibilities to ourselves, our loved ones, and our community?

As a reader, you join Greenhalgh in her thinking process. She steps through different philosophical theories, bringing a utilitarian perspective, a deontological perspective, and a practical rationality perspective, to her dilemma. Should she try and maximise the outcome for the greatest number of people and avoid going, does she have a ‘duty to set an example and stay away’, or should she stick to what feels morally right and be by her mother’s side as she lies there dying.

What becomes clear is that there is no ‘right’ answer. Each theory Greenhalgh explores leaves her with different answers that never seem quite right. But merely selecting her ‘favourite moral theory’ is also questionable based on a meta-philosophical perspective.

Greenhalgh’s experience is a lesson for us all. She reminds us that there are no easy answers in this pandemic, but thinking through the difficult questions it presents is a good first step in moving forward thoughtfully.

The politicisation of the public service

Bernard Keane

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Deploring the state of government today is all too easy: from carpark rorts to sacking departmental secretaries, to throwing millions of dollars at consultants, to hiding behind unaccountable political staffers.

But Bernard Keane isn’t pining for some golden age when Australia really knew how to do government. His series is altogether more original and more interesting than the usual earnest laments, and it’s highly recommended.

Keane is a former senior federal public servant, and this series is founded in institutional knowledge that can only come from having witnessed first-hand how decisions are made, who makes them, and what pressures they’re responding to. But knowing what it’s like at the coal-face hasn’t led Keane to buy into the stories we may be tempted to tell ourselves about why what’s going on is justifiable, kind-of. 

Rather than exhorting people to ‘do better’, Keane has a fair crack at why this set of institutions has inevitably led to this kind of politics and this way of doing government.

How much should we care? It’s only when Keane rounds up the many manifestations of government failings that the answer becomes apparent. Short, pithy, and very persuasive.

Shutdown: How COVID Shook the World’s Economy

Adam Tooze

Adam Tooze Shutdown book cover

2020 was the year the world stopped. COVID-19 collided with our everyday lives, from elections to hospitals, international currency valuations to schools. In a matter of weeks, the global economy shrunk by 20 per cent, and even the most conservative governments were making unpreceded government interventions.

As Adam Tooze writes, “for the last century we have been riding our luck” – and yet we were shockingly unprepared for an inevitable crisis.

Clear and rigorous, Shutdown is a detailed economic history from the virus’s arrival until early 2021. Written with a sense of urgency, it recounts the ways the crisis shook the institutions that underpin globalised economies, and exposed the willingness of governments to suspend their ideology to preserve some semblance of the status quo. It reminds us just how close we came to a systemic financial meltdown – and how the lessons learnt from the GFC may have saved us.

Tooze is no stranger to crises. His previous book, Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World, chronicled the lead-up to and fallout from the Great Recession. The stark message from his latest work is that we should prepare better for the next crisis.

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