Economists run experiments, too

A get-together of scholars studying whether, how and where we should implement taxes, subsidies or regulation to tackle global environmental challenges.

Go to the profile of Aiora Zabala
Sep 27, 2019
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For most who don't know this literature, it's easy to lightly recommend that we should implement taxes, subsidies or regulations to tackle environmental challenges. It might feel a matter of opinion or ideology, which we all have. But this or that policy ‒or policy instrument, in the jargon‒ are a matter of scientific scrutiny, too.

For example, a large part of all European Union budget is distributed as direct payments to farmers. The goals of such payments are multiple, such as ecosystem conservation. But, Are these effective in encouraging farmers' environmental stewardship? You might think 'yes', or 'no'. Or 'maybe'.

Economists and behavioural scientists are trying to find the answer by running experiments (much like in life sciences labs). With these, researchers test policy variations before they are implemented, such as differing payment amounts to carry out conservation activities, or sequential rounds of payments to see what's the long term behavioural effect, among many others.

Two years ago, scholars concerned with these questions formed the Research Network on Economic Experiments for the Common Agricultural Policy (REECAP). In early September this year, they gathered in Osnabrück (Germany) to discuss their latest studies, future directions for the field and common concerns. A relatively small gathering allowed for intense and exciting exchange. It was focused and pragmatical too. Among the sessions, they included speakers at the interface between science and policy, directly advising European institutions on their agricultural policies, doing environmental lobbying in Brussels, or directly making decisions, for example.

Another topic concerned the so-called crisis of reproducibility of published studies, first discussed in psychology and in life sciences, and put on the spot among economists by studies like this and this. To a panel on the topic, I brought the view on the challenges and opportunities of such crisis from an editors' perspective. Some areas for action are policy checklists and code and data statements (as currently done across Nature journals). Replication studies are increasing and interesting initiatives are ongoing (like the Replication Network), but they also challenging due to disincentives for individual academic careers.

A distinct approach to tackle it is that of preregistered reports, where our colleagues at Nature Human Behaviour have taken the lead. A preregistered report is a document laying out the research question and the plan for data gathering and analysis, but without the results yet. One option is to get them reviewed and a preliminary acceptance of the final manuscript, even before the results are known. This works around issues of publication bias for positive results. Another, smaller step is to register the hypotheses prior to testing them (as done by Maki et al. at Nature Sustainability). This action increases transparency (and minimises the risk for cherry-picking results).

All in, the REECAP network is full of energy. This vibrant community, together with other initiatives across the Atlantic, promises to bring much needed evidence for us to be able to say, confidently, whether, how and in what context a policy instrument should be implemented.

Are you doing research or working on policy around this topic? Here's how to take part in REECAP

Photo credit: Fabian Thomas

Go to the profile of Aiora Zabala

Aiora Zabala

Associate Editor, Nature Sustainability

Before joining Nature Research, Aiora was lecturer at the University of Cambridge and research consultant at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), working on sustainable livelihoods and human perspectives on conservation. Aiora studied Environmental Sciences and doctoral courses in Ecological Economics at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. She holds an MSc in Environmental Policy/ Geography from the University of Oxford and a PhD from the University of Cambridge, focused on motivations and incentives for sustainable behaviour. Aiora is based in the London office.

1 Comments

Go to the profile of Ruth Milne
Ruth Milne 2 months ago

What a great initiative and network!