The Cournot Centre is an independent French-based research institute. It is supported by the Cournot Foundation, which operates under the Fondation de France. The Centre takes its name from the pioneering economist, mathematician and philosopher Antoine Augustin Cournot (1801–77).

Neither a think tank nor a research bureau, the Centre enjoys the special independence of a catalyst. My old student dictionary (dated 1936) says that catalysis is the “acceleration of a reaction produced by a substance, called the catalyst, which may be recovered practically unchanged at the end of the reaction”. The reaction we have in mind results from bringing together (a) an issue of economic policy that is currently being discussed and debated in Europe and (b) the relevant theoretical and empirical findings of serious economic research in universities, think-tanks and research bureaux. Acceleration is desirable, because it is better that reaction occurs before minds are made up and decisions taken, not after. We hope that the Cournot Centre can be recovered practically unchanged and used again and again.

Notice that “policy debate” is not exactly what we are trying to promote. To have a policy debate, you need not only knowledge and understanding, but also preferences, desires, values and goals. The trouble is that, in practice, the debaters often have only those things, and they invent or adopt only those “findings” that are convenient. The Cournot Centre hopes to inject the findings of serious research at an early stage.

It is important to realize that this is not easy or straightforward. The analytical issues that underlie economic policy choices are usually complex. Economics is not an experimental science. The available data are scarce, and may not be exactly the relevant ones. Interpretations are therefore uncertain. Different studies, by uncommitted economists, may give different results. When those controversies exist, it is our hope that the Centre’s conferences will discuss them. Live debate at that fundamental level is exactly what we are after.

Robert Solow,
Co-Founder of the Cournot Foundation and Centre