Spotlight on Economics: Research improves understanding of public policies
“What do you do?”
This standard query is one of my favorite questions to answer when meeting someone new. I used to say, “I teach economics,” or “I study public policy.” Increasingly, however, my first answer is, “I try to change the world.”
This answer generally causes the questioner to blink and pause for a few seconds. I then clarify that I work with bright, hardworking and passionate students as they study public policy questions at North Dakota State University. I further explain that their projects try to improve our understanding of policy questions on the minds of elected officials, policymakers and most every citizen.
These students are part of the Mancur Olson Student Research Fellows program at the NDSU Center for the Study of Public Choice and Private Enterprise (PCPE). The core of the PCPE mission is exploring the institutions and policies that make people’s lives better off by using academic research to improve our understanding.
As we talk about the projects our fellows want to conduct, our discussions focus on three points:
Does the project matter? We want to study policies that have real-world implications and are part of ongoing policy discussions in our area.
What can we say about the question? Having expertise and interest in a topic is essential to producing good research.
What can the fellows learn from the project? Every project should be a learning opportunity.
We have no shortage of policy questions that meet our criteria, and new questions that capture our fellows’ excitement emerge every day. I want to share two projects our fellows are working on that could have real policy impact.
Agriculture and energy are among the most important industries to North Dakota and the northern Plains region’s economic development and quality of life. One afternoon, the fellows engaged in a discussion on how the highly productive agricultural sector might be able to produce feedstock that could be used to power biomass energy production.
My research background is in renewable energy regulation and policy. From this discussion, we made two observations. First, producing biomass feedstock was viable and potentially useful as export markets continue to change.
Second, understanding the policy and regulatory structure would be key to the development of a biofuel production system. Our fellows are writing a report on the policy and regulatory environment that such a system would face in the region.
A second research project our fellows are working on is an exploration of the economic impact of energy development and the strategies that local communities can adopt to avoid boom-and-bust cycles. Understanding how communities can fully benefit from energy development while also diversifying their economies is a policy question on the minds of many local communities.
The fellows are exploring real-world cases from across the region to identify successful strategies in diversification. They will produce case studies and policy analyses that highlight those strategies.
Beyond these projects, the fellows are working on a wide range of other research projects that touch on policy questions about local government spending, economic development on Native American lands, and rural development and service provision. Ultimately, we hope that my claim of working to change the world will prove true.
In the meantime, we will continue to engage policy questions that matter and produce research that policymakers, elected officials and the general public can use to better understand these important questions.