2 Jul 2012

Master plan update

My last "master plan" post was in Dec 2009. Lots has changed since then:
  • I moved to Amsterdam in Sep 2010 after my UC Berkeley postdoc ended.
  • I got a job at Wageningen University working on water policy in Europe (1/2011 -- 6/2013).
  • I published TEoA in June 2011. It got good reviews and sold well.
  • I've been speaking, writing and blogging [here!] for public consumption.
In recent weeks, I have decided to cut my losses on academic publication (read this). I have therefore divided my academic writing into three categories: published, working, and "finished." This last category includes "papers that are, supposedly, not rigorous enough for academic journals." I disagree, but I can't hope to change an entrenched academic paradigm in which the winners from the status quo control the status quo -- not that I haven't tried!

Skip this section if you're not into the philosophy of science...
I was pushed over the edge when this paper was rejected by a journal because the referees did not like our inductive method, i.e., we had run an experiment to see how information changes peoples' willingness to contribute to a public good. In one version of the experiment, subjects could see how much their team members contributed to the public good; in another version, they could infer that contribution, but it wasn't so obvious.

It turned out that information display led to a BIG difference in behavior: many more people responded to the contributions of others when those contributions were clear. Even more interesting, the change in behavior was almost entirely due to a change in women's responses. This figure shows how strong the change in female behavior was (left) compared to men's relative lack of change (right):

Female responses on left, male on the right. Thin line from "more information" treatment.
This result was unexpected because we had not designed the experiment to look for gender effects. The referees did not like our "ex-post rationalization," which others would call induction (finding an explanation for real world phenomena). They wanted us to re-run the experiments (big time and money costs) with an intentional design to test for gender effects. This deductive method makes sense for real sciences (mathematics, chemistry, and even engineering) where control over all variables is possible, but not for social "sciences" that study humans. That doesn't mean that some economists don't try to pretend that humans can be categorized into nice neat boxes.*

I gave up on that paper in the same week as I gave up on another paper that was going to get bogged down in a fight over statistical details.

* More and more on the cult of scientism, academic rationalization, and the (autistic) ivory tower.

I've always been interested in using academic rigor to improve public policy much more than spending endless brain cycles addressing every theoretical nit. As a "systems guy" interested in applying economics to real world problems, I just cannot afford to attend to such trivia when there are far bigger arguments to address (e.g., "should government control water allocation?") and non-academic audiences to engage and enlighten (the motto of my alma mater, UCLA, is "fiat lux").**

So, I am now winding down my academic writing to spend more time on outreach, which means that I will:
  • Continue blogging, so read closely and bring more readers!
  • Spend more time on public speaking and less time on academic speaking
  • Start a "fremium" aguanomics webcast/conference call (post to come)
  • Write a short e-book on regulation
  • Write TEoA 2.0
  • Teach applied environmental policy at Wageningen
It also looks like I may be getting my next job in the US. If that plan comes to pass -- you'll be the first to know -- then I will be at the VERY center of water debates and applied policy.

Bottom Line: I am changing from an academic intellectual to a public intellectual.
** I attended a panel on Rio+20 at EAERE during which Marianne Fay (World Bank economist) said that we don't need more theory. We need more empirical information, policy analysis and recommendations and outreach to convey "academic" ideas to the people who need them. Working on it!