How to Make an Impact as an Early-Career Scientist - Why Your Next Research Partner Should Be an Economist
You must be doing something right if you get paid to do as a researcher what you did for fun when you were five. Or so I told myself often during my first environmental consulting job out of college, trying to view a summer of soil and veg transects for new building permits on the border of Grand Teton National Park as something other than monotonous and morally ambiguous. I spent every day sifting through wildflowers, coyote tracks, and glacial deposits that had evolved into complex microbiomes capable of supporting this incredible and unique ecosystem. The sickly-sweet smell of sagebrush covered my body as I knelt on the ground and made my head spin. I would stand up every so often for a breath of fresh air, look out over the valley - and see the mass of concrete and pavement rolling out from the valley center like some kind of permanent fog. I would consider how soon the fog would reach my field site, how soon another house or road would obliterate the ground on which I stood. I’d feel sick all over again. So I’d crouch back down and get on with my work, as powerless to stop urban sprawl from claiming my favorite places now as I had been when I first discovered my love of the outdoors.
Every socially conscious earth scientist with whom I’ve spoken has encountered this feeling of helplessness at some point in their career. Some respond by increasing their commitment to education and outreach, while others pour themselves into studies that will produce meaningful and actionable data. There don’t seem to be many other options for early career scientists; whether you’re in academia or industry, research demands time and objectivity in quantities that preclude direct activism on environmental issues. Organizations such as 314.org are working to give scientists a greater voice in U.S. political institutions, and highly prominent scientists can take part in the science diplomacy pushing environmental agreements on the international stage, but those of us still in/ just leaving school need to find ways to make our research relevant in the public sphere now.
Understanding the physical phenomena behind the environmental changes in our own backyards does not prepare scientists to explain the socio-economic phenomena driving those changes. We can show with relative ease how the physical systems of the built environment interact with those of the natural environment to produce suboptimal outcomes. The largest barrier to successful communication between the scientific community and the wider public isn’t that scientists lack communication skills, it’s that environmental science is not necessarily a problem-solving tool to be shared with the public in and of itself. Environmental issues result from the workings of complex social institutions - if you want your environmental research to have an impact on environmental issues, you are going to need to partner with some social scientists.
I hope that at this point I’m preaching to the choir, but the distance (or, at worst, disdain) with which I’ve been treated by geo/biophysical scientists since switching from geoscience to environmental economics has been disheartening. I did not enter economics because I’m less capable or curious or outdoorsy than other environmental scientists; I just wanted a more direct tool set for protecting the places and ecosystems worth researching. Economists like 2018 Nobel Prize-winner Bill Nordhaus have been translating scientists’ warnings about climate change into viable, votable policy tools since the 1980s. Of course, policy-makers and the public do not always listen to economists, either, but explaining environmental issues as part of solutions-oriented policy packages does more to motivate science-based public action than environmental education alone.
Innovation at the intersection of science and economics will be critical to the success of any versions of the Green New Deal passed at the city, state, or federal levels in the United States. The bill’s recent defeat in the U.S. Senate should be viewed as an opportunity for more scientists (e.g. YOU) and economists to team up and weigh in on the types of programs and research that a New Green Deal should fund. Climate change mitigation initiatives in the United States largely ignore the socio-environmental interactions driving climate change— I’m thinking specifically of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI)’s inability to address land use change. This market-based CO2 emissions reduction initiative engages power companies in participating states without addressing the underlying drivers of power consumption. Yet even if power companies in RGGI states transitioned to 100% renewables, the consumption of land and consumer goods driving power use would still emit greenhouse gases. Urban and exurban sprawl, unsustainable forestry and agricultural practices, melting ice caps - the environmental problems that you study are physical manifestations of the financial and social institutions studied by economists.
In a political climate capable of creating a Green New Deal, we can go beyond the limited scope of RGGI to address the structural social causes of high energy consumption and ecological degradation. One specific policy tool that scientists and economists can work together to improve is use-value assessment, a type of preferential taxation that incentivizes conservation on private land. Multiple levels of government could leverage use-value assessment (UVA) programs to address the direct and underlying drivers of climate change by:
Designing and enacting UVA programs to fundamentally improve social and environmental outcomes requires that policy makers understand dependencies in social and environmental outcomes. Data characterizing these dependencies at the resolution needed for policy design often does not exist, and cannot exist outside of an integrated earth and social sciences research framework.
Identifying potential economist recruits starts at your field site, in your data set, or wherever you make your observations. Take note of the social and economic factors that you notice or suspect are at play - no need to understand how or why they might impact your work. Then look at the research posters in the economics buildings on your campus. Search for keywords relating to your work and “economics” in Google Scholar. Scan the research summaries of the economists at your local land grant university (note that some of them might be based in the agriculture and forestry schools). Reach out to these economists with your observations, questions, and ideas for collaboration; they are likely as excited as you to produce innovative and impactful research. Analytical advances from science and economics can and must be further integrated to make the true benefits of solving socio-environmental problems visible to the public, policy-makers, and ourselves.
*Thank you to Mariama for letting me share my thoughts on her blog! Congratulations on defending your master’s thesis! Thanks also to my UMaine environmental economics colleagues George Voigt and Eric Miller for their edits.