31 May 2011

Dangerous academics?

I got my PhD at the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at UC Davis. I entered the department to do development economics but ended up specializing in environmental and natural resource economics (ERE).*

But that didn't mean that I ignored agricultural economics. In fact, I learned quite a bit about farmers (most of it good), agricultural policies, and land and water management.

OTOH, I also learned about the "consultant-research machine" that one can find in most academic settings. In short, academics with credibility are paid to write reports for people in industry. Usually these reports are objective and based on the researcher's beliefs, but sometimes money can push the border between objective and "whatever you want us to say." It's hard to know.

In one case, we (ERE grad students) were depressed to see several of our professors and fellow students working on the cost-benefit of pesticide use, publishing "findings" for academic, industry and regulatory audiences that supported of the use of methyl bromide (MBr) for strawberries [PDF].** It seems that they assisted in winning an exemption from international protocols to ban methyl bromide (a carcinogen and ozone-depleting chemical).

MBr was eventually phased out, but now I see that its replacement -- methyl iodide -- is considered dangerous for farm workers, the environment (and perhaps consumers).

And guess who is writing in support of methyl iodide [PDF]? The same folks. This is a sad pattern.

Bottom Line: Academics should remember that costs on one group for benefits to another group involves politics, not just economics. And they need to be careful about taking money from winners to cast doubt on costs to losers.

* In one memorable rebellion, I presented evidence to the chair (an aggie) that 2/3rds of the professors were aggies, but 2/3rds of the graduate students were ERE-oriented. That fact was not well received.

** These folks also claimed to be environmental economists. We agreed that their work related to environmental issues; we were not sure that it supported a healthy environment.