Jul 18, 2022 - Economy

$100K got Uber research published in prestigious outlet

Image of a stock of bills with an Uber label.

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Should bought-and-paid-for corporate white papers get published under the auspices of the venerable National Bureau of Economic Research? That's the question raised by new disclosures from the Uber files leak.

State of play: A major NBER research paper c0-authored by Alan Krueger, the former chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, was revealed last week to have been paid for by Uber as "part of a production line of political ammunition that could be fed to politicians and the media," in the words of Guardian investigative reporter Felicity Lawrence.

Context: NBER, more than a century old, is one of the most venerable economic institutions in the world. It's funded mostly by U.S. government agencies, but also by a broad range of corporations and foundations. There is no more prestigious venue in which to publish economic research.

By the numbers: Uber paid Krueger $100,000 for the controversial 2016 study, which has been cited by 981 scholarly articles to date. A payment of that magnitude "is not trivial and is relevant," one high-profile economist tells Axios.

  • The payment, to an economist who was broadly beloved within the profession, has been described as troubling and distressing by academics on Twitter.

For the record: In a statement to Axios, NBER spokesperson Charlie Radin said that "the NBER's research disclosure policy requires all of the authors on any working paper disseminated by the NBER to disclose any financial interests that bear on the paper's content."

  • While not saying explicitly that the disclosure was adequate, Radin was at pains to point out that "Krueger’s consulting relationship with Uber" was disclosed.
  • That disclosure, in full: "Krueger acknowledges working as a consultant to Uber in December 2014 and January 2015 when the initial draft of this paper was written."

How it works: Seth Harris, another White House economist and a frequent Krueger co-author, tells Axios that he has never accepted any money from Uber.

  • Harris did once write a paper-for-hire, he says, but it was not for Uber and it was published directly by the organization, not by a scholarly outlet.

Flashback: The 2011 documentary "Inside Job" famously grilled former Fed board member Ric Mishkin on a 2006 study he wrote entitled "Financial Stability in Iceland," for which he was paid $124,000.

  • More recently, the Revolving Door Project has urged much more transparency about where another former White House economist, Larry Summers, makes his money.

The bottom line: It is commonplace for companies to pay economists to write research that then gets published by the company itself. When the research appears in academic outlets, however, the current disclosure regime can feel insufficient.

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