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Eric Sjöberg on Environmental Economics

Continuing our spotlights on GCSC faculty affiliate research, this month we chat with Eric Sjoberg, assistant professor in the Department of Economics.

Why did you come to the University of Utah?

On a professional level, I like the work my department does. We have a breadth in our approach to economics – it’s a really interesting department to be in. There was also room for me there – I felt that I could fill a little bit of a gap. On a personal level, my wife and I really liked it when we came here. faculty members discussion

You mentioned that you like the breadth of your department. How does your work fit within that breadth?

My research interest is mainly in environmental economics. My toolbox is using microeconomic statistical skills, trying to extract causal relationship from microdata. It’s a really good collaborative tool, not only in different fields of economics, but across campus. It’s easy to connect because many people use similar tools. I find the intersection and discussion of how different scientists deal with data and statistics very interesting.

Who have you collaborated with in other departments?

Most recently, Daniel Mendoza from Atmospheric Sciences. He’s got some really nice atmospheric models on our sometimes not-so-wonderful air, and we’re getting that data to look at how air quality affects different outcomes, especially health-related. How does that affect health costs in our state? This is something that is perhaps not highlighted enough when we talk about how to address air quality. We always talk about the downsides of regulation – that it is going to be a cost to industry, but it’s important to recognize the savings when people’s health improves. To do a proper cost-benefit analysis, you need to look at the benefits as well.

Is this related to your work on ambient air pollution and pregnancy outcomes?

No, but it could be. Essentially, the atmospheric models I’ve used are rudimentary, and Mendoza is a proper atmospheric scientist who can give me much better exposure data. We could look at any outcome, not only health-related. You could look at, for example, if a kid’s asthma has been exacerbated by the air quality, which decreases his attendance in school, and prevents him from getting the education that he otherwise could attain due to health issues. One can think about the effect of air quality on educational outcomes, and by extension, earnings.

Say more about the part of your research that engages with game theory.

The air quality project is one strand of research I do. The other strand is looking at environmental regulation and how it is enforced. This is a mixture between game theory and applied statistic econometrics. We always have these great policies that we think we’re going to implement that will solve our environmental problems, and it looks great on paper. But when it comes to implementation, there is a lot of competition.

If you’re thinking about issues with how policy is enforced from an economic perspective, what kind of things are you looking at specifically?

Here is a simple example: one can look at emissions from a firm that’s close to a river. There are limits to how much they are allowed to emit. And there’s a national level for emissions that emissions can’t exceed. In some cases, like in the enforcement of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, states are responsible for enforcement. And if a state is particularly hard on a firm; that they give them large fines if they exceed that standard, the firm might choose to relocate to another state that’s not as relentless in enforcing those standards. Or states might be more lenient on a firm, in order to keep that firm in the state. States can choose to enforce environmental policies as a strategic tool. I find that interesting because there’s a big focus on creating policies but less of a focus on how we enforce them and things that can go wrong during the enforcement process.

Why are you interested in environmental policy and economics?

I like the outdoors and stuff like that, but when I started my studies in economics, it was because I found economics fascinating. Then I took courses in environmental economics and it was really interesting. But, I think it doesn’t matter how uninteresting a topic you find, if you dig into it, it becomes interesting after a while. One of my first papers was on the relationship between fish prices and fish size. It’s maybe not the first thing to bring up at a dinner party because it’s not great conversation. But it becomes quite thought-provoking when you dig into it.

What about the GCSC? How did you end up here?

When I came to the department, Haimanti [Bhattacharya] who is also a member of my department, told me I should talk to Brenda [Brenda Bowen, Director of the GCSC] about joining. The GCSC is a wonderful organization. It’s great to have the research mixers they set up, with opportunities for collaborations and meeting scientists with similar interests across campus. It’s a really, really good venue to do that. Just providing that infrastructure is excellent.

Have any collaborations come out of your participation with the GCSC?

I met Daniel Mendoza at one of those meetings. And, at the research mixers, you make a short presentation and people come up afterwards and offer some feedback. Even though you might not collaborate with them, you still get a new perspective if you’re talking to people from, say, geography, or atmospheric sciences

Other faculty are probably very interested in what you do. It seems like a good fit with multiple kinds of research.

Because my research is quite interdisciplinary in its nature I often venture into other fields. I always try to be respectful and aware of that I sometimes use my tools in fields where I don’t have my primary expertise. So I try to talk to people from different disciplines to learn more, understand better, and get feedback, as well as find potential collaborators.

Do you have any advice for graduate students who want to do interdisciplinary work like what you’ve done?

Start with reading papers outside your own discipline and go to seminars. I find it extremely important to read papers from other disciplines, because they write and deal with data in different ways. Go to seminars and listen to people from other approaches. We’re dealing with the same type of question but we all have unique angles, and the more you can widen your perspective, the easier it becomes to eventually work interdisciplinarily as well.

To do interdisciplinary work – sitting down with a person from another discipline and doing research together – that’s very hard. You need to decide how you’re going to deal with the data, how you’re going to write papers, which perspective is the lead, because we do it in such different ways. It’s both rewarding and challenging. I think it’s crucial to talk about expectations before projects. What are we doing here? What can I contribute with? There’s no need to just window dress a project with people from different disciplines.

Have you ever read something that made you ask yourself – how did I get here?

If I stroll too far I don’t understand it! [Laughs] I started studying philosophy and history of ideas – history of thought it’s called in the US. You didn’t read anything in depth, but you read a little bit of everything. So I got a little bit of training in how people from different disciplines think. I always tell students that you don’t have to understand all the parts of every paper you read, just read through it and get the gist of it.