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!


DB said...

This is a great move. So frustrating that real diamonds of wisdom are often lost because they lack "academic rigor."

BB said...

Reminds me of when LS and I were working on the economic effects of the redemption of food stamps in Humboldt county and found that $500,000 of food stamps stolen in Portland Oregon appeared to have been cashed in Humboldt county (redemptions were 120% of issue for four months).

The USDA buried the study as “incomplete” because they didn’t want flashback from Congress or the GAO.

Discoveries are never welcome in academia unless you state from the start you know that they are there. Physicists and astronomers would be out of business if they ran by those rules. Learning from experience has no place in academia.

Anonymous said...

I fully support your move. I too could not get published and pretty much ended my academic desires. I am working on an untested hypothesis that most worldly problems have been solved by insightful scientists. However, due to the intransigence of those whose systems we threaten, we are shut out. Does this really surprise me? No. Those folks make the rules that they then succeed greatly in playing. Competing rules, like competing political parties are slow to evolve. Revolutions may splash but true currents and flows of intellectual policy and legislation are seldom immediate. So, in my case, I have applied my capabilities to the pursuit of great wealth. I love doing the “right thing” and “changing the world.” However, I have concluded that certain work will pay consistently , not exploit humanity (at least directly as I can surmise), and is somewhat socially redeemable. Let’s definitely cross paths along the way and I know that if any change is afoot in water, it is because of you! (By the way, I still consult in water, just like I still eat ice cream because I love it, just not good for me.)

Bill Kier said...

David - your paper reminds me vaguely (at this pt, anyway, I'm just in off the road and not reading things all the way to the bottom) with the published work of UC-B Ph.D candidates Zack Willey (sp?) and Darwin Hall back in the mid-'80s (i.e. two different publications) of what pest management information was used by agricultural pesticide users and how that information appeared to influence their pesticide use. Hall's work, in particular (i.e, they were both disciples of the late Bob van den Bosch)led to creation of UC's integrated pest management and, eventually regulatory improvement - and, because of my devotion to the subject, my firing, at the behest of the new Chevron lobbyist, from the State Senate staff in 1983. These experiences can be character building! Bill Kier

RD said...

You must continue to teach through whatever means you choose, but that is your purpose and function.

DG said...

Admire the conviction here. I agree about the dysfunction of peer review, particularly when reviewers try to impose their own parochial interests or ideas onto your work.

I do wonder, however, is it a matter of finding the right journals to advance your ideas and get the benefits of peer review (e.g. constructive feedback that improves the paper)? I wholeheartedly endorse a life as a public intellectual and am going to move in this direction. But my sense is that academic publication and public pursuits can be mutually reinforcing.

I had the great fortune to spend the day with a prominent social scientist who shared that in the early days, she would often struggle to get published because her ideas were too radical. She persisted and pushed through new ideas that fueled new publishing options. Now, the question -- could she have achieved the same impact without persisting? I think she unlocked a virtuous cycle where her scientific credibility fed her broader impacts. Anyway, I like your proposal and can see it as the way forward but hope you'll keep an open mind. Look forward to reading whatever comes next!

David Zetland said...

@Bill -- not sure those papers are similar :)

@DG: (1) I get better "peer review" from my blog readers and industry contacts. Academics tend to concentrate on minutae that are irrelevant to policy, while missing the bigger picture. (2) Your example is correct, but there are many more channels to get an audience. (3) My publications in journals that are hard for people to access seem to be buried. It's much better to be in the open -- via blogging, talks, etc.

Anonymous said...

Does one 'advance ideas' by having them published? Isn't the idea to have them read instead? E.g., who reads 'Public Choice' anyway? Never heard of the journal! Such a waste, as your points are interesting...

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