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Economists, economists everywhere

Phew… I just finished three days of listening to resource and agricultural economists give talks, and I can say I’ve had enough models to last me for quite awhile. That said, I am grateful I was able to attend the conference right here in Adelaide, where I am doing my research on water policy.

I’m not an economist, so a lot of the models and methodology they talked about had very little meaning for me. However, it was really an eye-opening experience to attend a conference full of economists. It sort of makes me wonder how much we all tend to box ourselves into our specific disciplines. I often felt like some of the presenters were really missing the bigger picture by trying to put a dollar value on everything.

Don’t get me wrong. I think resource economists are filling a very important gap by trying to place values on environmental functions and systems. It’s just that it seemed like they often had to simplify their models so much, or make so many assumptions, that it would be difficult for a policy-maker to give much heed to their results. Also, it was interesting to hear so many of the economists complain about how politicians weren’t listening to them and adopting all of their ideas. I had to smile a little bit, because I imagine that’s probably how everyone feels about politicians.

Anyways, I learned an incredible amount in the conference, but one of the biggest take-aways for me was the need for people who are trained in multiple disciplines. I recognize that it would be hard to become highly skilled in more than one field, however people who have a reasonable understanding of many different disciplines really can help to bridge the gaps, and help each group understand each other.

That became particularly apparent in one of the mini-symposiums at the conference where they tried to have some ecologists speak to the economists. The ecologists were talking about how complex nature is, and that it’s really not possible to say exactly how much water the River Murray needs to be healthy, because those needs vary over time and space, and no one really understands how everything is interconnected. The economist’s response was that it’s not very useful to know that ecosystems are complex. We have to simplify, otherwise we can’t get any numbers, and we need numbers to make good policy decisions.

I’m sure both sides are partly right and partly wrong, but it sure would have been useful if they could each have spoken the other’s language. They were both talking about using reductionist approaches, but it was fairly apparent that they both meant something different by reductionist.

At any rate, the conference made me feel good about the attempts the MELP program makes to give students an interdisciplinary experience. A lot of people scoff at that idea, but I think that there is a big need out there for translators and go-betweens. At least it could save a lot of unnecessary confusion and arguments!


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