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The studENT - Translating knowledge

Translating knowledge
(posted on behalf of @Andrew Nixon, PhD Representative)
In my interview with Donato Cutolo and Professor Martin Kenney (read it here), we kept returning to the role of antitrust regulation in improving the competition landscape for the benefit of entrepreneurs. The past few years have seen a marked increase in policy conversations on competition law (what is typically referred to as antitrust in the U.S.), as a progressive, anti-monopolist perspective has gained traction in both America and Europe. This school of thought pushes back against what has been the dominant paradigm of regulations and judicial rulings that prioritize consumer welfare—a concept first popularized by Robert Bork in the 1970’s that essentially switched the emphasis from preventing the concentration of economic power to simply keeping prices low for consumers (Vaheesan, 2019). Bork’s interpretation of antitrust deeply influenced the Regan administration and Supreme Court’s approach to mergers. In the four decades since we have seen markets from airlines to healthcare to beer become dominated by fewer companies, particularly in the U.S. and Japan, but the lower prices promised by consumer welfare never materialized (Abdela & Steinbaum, 2018; Capobianco, 2018; Wessel, 2018). In fact, the opposite has happened, with markups tripling from 21% to 61% since 1980, in addition to sluggish startup growth and weak business dynamism (Haltiwanger, 2017; De Loecker, Eeckhout, & Unger, 2020).
Anyways, what does this little history lesson have to do with this blog for PhD students? I want to highlight how to take the ideas from a conversation forward into writing an opinion piece. I was fortunate to recently contribute to a series on competition published by Policy Options, a digital magazine put out by the Institute for Research on Public Policy. So much of the data we have on potential issues stemming from market concentration comes from the U.S and we badly need studies in other jurisdictions. My dissertation research will offer examples from Canada (a country which has a different attitude toward mergers and corporate concentration, but that’s for a different post), and the context I work in is agriculture and food. Writing for Policy Options gave me the chance to clarify some of the ideas I spoke about with Donato and Martin, and also share some of the insights from my dissertation research with an audience that could influence these topics.
The article was published on February 25 and you can read it here. I wanted to share five tips that I learned from media and communications training workshops provided by the wonderful team at Clarity Hub that helped me write the piece:
  • Pick the right outlet and write for that audience. I was offered the opportunity to contribute to this series through a few connections I’ve made, but typically you need to pitch your piece to the media outlet you want to write for. In the past, I’ve co-authored pieces in the Globe and Mail Business section with my supervisor who had sent a timely article idea to their Op-Ed editor to get the greenlight. Since competition policy conversations in Canada are limited to a niche policy wonk audience, a magazine called Policy Options was a great fit for this article. Their audience is also more familiar with these topics than a more general audience, so we didn’t have to waste precious space explaining terms like efficiency. The language still needed to be plain to be effective, so we cut down on jargon and made any recommendations specific to actionable items for policymakers. 
  • Bring in a co-author to help fill in subject matter expertise you may be lacking. An observant reader will notice that in the previous tip I used “we” a lot. That’s because I co-authored this article with Keldon Bester, a fellow Canadian competition researcher. Keldon had previously spent time working as a Special Advisor in the Competition Bureau (Canada’s antitrust agency), so he has the specific knowledge about the history of merger decisions, and what the Bureau is lacking. I brought the research on the issues I’ve seen in agriculture, and Keldon helped frame the article, so it resonated with policymakers who pay attention to the competition file. 
  • Start with an elevator pitch. Back when I was working with startups, we used to spend a lot of time helping them craft their elevator pitch. This means that they needed to be able to relay why someone should care about their business idea to someone in the time it would take them to ride an elevator together, keeping their message to 30 seconds or less. I find this method very applicable to academia too—if you can’t explain your research in that amount of time, that’s a sign that you will face difficulty speaking to people outside your discipline. Having a refined elevator pitch will give you the answer to the all-important question “Why should I care?” when writing an op-ed related to your research. 
  • Include a Bottom-line Actionable Message (BLAM). What message do you want to leave your audience with that they can take forward? One exercise that can help you figure this out is called an Inverted Pyramid, where you begin with the critical information that your audience needs to know to understand the story you are trying to tell. See if you can find the BLAM in my op-ed (hint: it’s at the start). 
  • Timing is everything. The opinion section moves very quickly to comment on the major headlines of the day, with stories moving in and out of relevance often within a week or two. If your research touches on a big news story, that’s the time to reach out to an op-ed editor. In Canada, there has been a debate over the past year about the relevance and suitability of our Competition Act to deal with the dynamics of digital markets. This has provided a longer than normal window to offer commentary on the subject. However, my co-author and I used our piece to stress that our competition legislation doesn’t even serve traditional markets like agriculture well, so we need to recognize those flaws and address them in tandem with digital concerns. 
I hope these tips help you bring your research to new audiences! Please share any other bits of advice in the comments, and I would also love any input on the op-ed too!
Capobianco, A. (2018). Market Concentration. OECD Directorate for Financial and Enterprise Affairs, Competition Committee. 

De Loecker, J., Eeckhout, J. & Unger, G. (2020). The rise of market power and the macroeconomic implications. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 135(2), 561-644. 
Haltiwanger, J. (2017). Changing Patterns of Productivity and Business Dynamism: Is There a Connection? Hoover Institution. 

Vaheesan S. (2019). The Profound Nonsense of Consumer Welfare Antitrust. The Antitrust Bulletin, 64(4):479-494. doi:10.1177/0003603X19875036 

Wessel, D. (2018, March-April). Is Lack of Competition Strangling the U.S. Economy? Harvard Business Review.