This week’s episode is the final installment of a three-part series that celebrates the 70th anniversary of Resources for the Future (RFF). In this episode, host Daniel Raimi looks toward the future of RFF, as seen through the eyes of the organization’s talented and dedicated research analysts and associates. RFF’s research analysts gather and analyze data, review published studies, help write papers and reports, and do it all with dedication and enthusiasm. They’re an essential part of the organization’s research. In this episode, Raimi talks with RFF Research Analysts Emily Joiner, Sophie Pesek, Nicholas Roy, and Steven Witkin, along with Senior Research Associate and Geographic Information Systems Coordinator Alexandra Thompson. While these young scholars share how they first got interested in environmental economics, they mostly focus on the future by lending insights about the topics they think RFF scholars will be working on in 20 or 30 years—and what role they see for themselves in that future.
Listen to the Podcast
70th Anniversary Podcast Series
Our special three-part series of Resources Radio celebrates the 70th anniversary of Resources for the Future this year. These episodes consider the organization through the respective lenses of the past, present, and future.
- Being part of the policy process: “Working occasionally with Hill staffers, and helping them see what the policies they’re proposing could lead to, and hearing how responsive they were to research and really how technically minded they were, gave me a lot more optimism for the policy process … I definitely carry that with me with everything I do now.” —Nick Roy (7:50)
- RFF impact from day one: “I got to see, on day one, that there’s a lot of impact that RFF can have. That was crazy to get to see the research being applied right away, from my very first day of work.” —Sophie Pesek (8:57)
- The future of environmental economics: “I think that all environmental research and environmental policy questions will basically revolve around two issues. The first is climate change; the second is environmental justice. And I think that’s appropriate. And I think, whether it’s wildlife, coastal hazards, carbon mitigation, climate change adaptation—it will all be around climate change and environmental justice. And that will be the lens through which we address those.” —Alexandra Thompson (13:16)
- Continued impact of economics research: “I think I want to be directly involved as a doer and try to come up with solutions that will be practical and used. I think that’s really satisfying—implementing these good practices that we want to see everywhere, even if it’s just in one small place.” —Steven Witkin (14:39)
- Focusing on positive outcomes: “If I feel that my research isn’t having an impact or is sort of divorced from the idea of doing good or having a positive outcome, I might want to do something more with boots on the ground and actually getting my hands dirty.” —Emily Joiner (16:53)
Top of the Stack
- Chesapeake by James A. Michener
- Alaska by James A. Michener
- Hawaii by James A. Michener
- Caribbean by James A. Michener
- Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future by Elizabeth Kolbert
- The Age of Revolution: 1789–1848 by Eric Hobsbawm
- Rip It Up and Start Again by Simon Reynolds
- A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold
- Severance television series
The Full Transcript
Daniel Raimi: Hello, and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future (RFF). I'm your host, Daniel Raimi. Today is the third episode in our three-part series that celebrates the 70th anniversary of RFF. For this episode, we look to the future of RFF as seen through the eyes of our talented and dedicated research analysts (RAs) and associates.
RFF’s RAs are essential to all of the research we do. They gather and analyze data, review literature, help write papers and reports, and do it all with dedication and enthusiasm. In today’s conversation, I’ll talk with Research Analysts Emily Joiner, Sophie Pesek, Nicholas Roy, Steven Witkin, and Senior Research Associate and GIS Coordinator Alexandra Thompson. I’ll ask them how they got interested in environmental research, but mostly focus on the future. What topics do they think RFF scholars will be working on in 20 or 30 years? And what role do they see for themselves in that future?
Today’s episode is really fun, so stay with us.
Where did you grow up, and have you always been interested in environmental issues?
Emily Joiner: My name is Emily Joiner, and I'm a research analyst at RFF. I grew up in the suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona. From a young age, I felt a moral obligation, I should say, to work on environmental issues (in an anthropocentric way, I guess) and being interested in the way that environmental issues affect people, from the time I took an economics class in high school and learned about the new concept of sustainability to me then. It was immediately, I guess, a path that I saw that would be rewarding.
Daniel Raimi: Do you think that interest was connected to the place where you grew up and the environment?
Emily Joiner: Slightly. I mean, of course Phoenix is a—famously, many people call it a testament to man's hubris because of the heat and the required air conditioning. And I think, as I grew older and became more and more aware of the world, I became more and more aware of Arizona’s, in general, extenuating circumstances in regard to water and in regard to, I guess, just sprawl, as well.
So, I think that definitely was in the back of my mind throughout my undergrad experience, especially. Kind of culminating in an undergraduate thesis on golf courses, and golf course hedonics, looking at golf course–adjacent properties. But where I grew up—Maricopa County—has the most golf courses of any county in America.
Nick Roy: My name is Nick Roy, and I'm a research analyst at RFF. I grew up in Sacramento, California. Obviously, California has a lot of environmental issues all around—droughts, fires—but also a lot of really beautiful places to go. You have the Sierras, the redwoods, and the ocean. So, I think, growing up, I guess I took it all for granted.
You see fires and things like that, and you get sad about it. But I didn't really realize it was a global issue until high school. So, I started to get more interested in environmental issues in college, and Resources for the Future and environmental economics in general became a pretty good avenue for me to look at that as objectively as possible from a policy perspective.
Alexandra Thompson: My name is Alexandra Thompson. I'm a senior research associate and the GIS coordinator at RFF, which stands for geographic information systems. I grew up in rural suburban New Jersey—northern New Jersey. I think I was always interested in environmental topics, but I didn’t know it, because I was very fortunate to grow up in a place where I had access to the outdoors and spent a lot of quality time outdoors. By the time I got to college, I was drawn to it naturally.
Sophie Pesek: Hi, my name's Sophie, and I'm a research analyst at RFF. I grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and I definitely always liked nature. But I think things really clicked for me in sixth grade, when I took my first environmental science class. And I have really fond memories of going out to the backyard, looking up at the stars, and trying to come up with a scientific explanation for how the moon cycle worked.
So it was just a very cool experience with getting to look at the world around you and trying to come up with an explanation for it. I really enjoyed that. And I think environmental science in general can sometimes get a bit of a bad rep for maybe being less rigorous than chemistry or physics, but what I really like about it is you have to understand all of those other disciplines in order to work in environmental science.
So, in college, I went to study environmental engineering because it seemed really applied and solutions oriented. But I think, even though I really enjoyed it and actually worked at a water sensor start-up for a bit after graduating, I began to think that the main issues with environmental policy in the world today were less about new technology and more about coming up with actionable policy solutions. So that's how I found my way to RFF.
Steven Witkin: I am Steven Witkin. I am a research analyst here at RFF. I grew up in Maryland and have lived in Maryland ever since. I can't say I was more interested than the average young person in environmental issues until I got to college. I actually avoided taking environmental science in high school, but in college, I took a class and really went into some of the systems of the environment and how a lot of things affect each other, and I think that really got me interested, and I kept on looking into those environmental systems.
Daniel Raimi: That's great. When you think back on your time at RFF to date, are there any experiences that stand out as being particularly rewarding or important? They might be papers or projects or events or social experiences you've had. Anything that comes to mind as a real highlight?
Alexandra Thompson: I think mostly just the collaborations in the research domain—especially working meetings, sitting down to solve problems together. It's really great that, at RFF, we all have the same mission, we're all on the same page, we're all trying to be as objective as possible and practical as possible.
I've been working with Rebecca Epanchin-Niell for many years on this project on saltwater intrusion in the Chesapeake Bay. And I just think we're putting together a really great, novel data set and coming up with really interesting approaches to look at the issue of saltwater intrusion and how it affects farmers in particular, and what that means for policy going forward.
Nick Roy: Well, in general at RFF, I think that the community we have here—especially among the RAs and the comms team now—we are all really close, and we hang out outside of work, and that's really fun. So, that's an overall rewarding experience.
But project-wise, working on the federal climate policy work with Kevin, Dallas, Josh, Karen, and a couple other fellows last year was really cool. I think, when I came to DC, I was a little bit skeptical about the political process in general, which is why I wasn't in politics—just more in policy work. Working occasionally with Hill staffers, and helping them see what the policies they're proposing could lead to, and hearing how responsive they were to research and really how technically minded they were, gave me a lot more optimism for the policy process. So that was a really cool process, and I think I definitely carry that with me with everything I do now.
Emily Joiner: As far as a specific project, one of the first things I was brought on to do was look at the US Environmental Protection Agency's use of the value of a statistical life, which is a really crucial number for cost-benefit analysis. That basically is the value of how much would people pay for a mortality risk reduction. And I think that doing so much reading on that really led to a lot of enlightenment about how cost-benefit analysis works and how that whole system is in place. So, it's a great experience.
Sophie Pesek: It's really hard to pick one. I will never forget—on my first day of work, Daniel, you sent me an email that said, "Hey, Sophie, I'm glad you're starting. By the way, we're working on a report that we hopefully will have done by the end of today at the request of members of Congress." And so I got to see, on day one, that there's a lot of impact that RFF can have. So, that was crazy to get to see the research being applied right away, from my very first day of work.
But I also had a really unique experience because of COVID. The summer I moved to DC, I got to come into the office regularly, but at that point, it was sort of elective. So it ended up being a lot of junior staff coming in. And that was a pretty special time, because I got to talk with my peers and really learn about their research and see just how engaged and passionate they were, all with other research analysts.
So that was a great time, although I was of course happy when more senior fellows started coming in, and I got to start being mentored a bit more—not just with all the environmental economics that everyone has, but also with the just amazing people that everyone is at RFF.
Steven Witkin: The things that I’ll remember the most, and what I think has been really great, has been—as we’re getting back into going to the office, the group of young researchers here, and people, are just really great. I’ve had a lot of good experiences with the other RAs here. They’re really supportive and a good group. They’re all really bright, and they’re one of the great things about RFF.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that's great. So, thinking big picture now, I'm going to ask you an impossible question: If you think out into the future—20, 25, 30 years into the future—what types of topics do you think researchers like those at RFF will be working on, and that might be you working on?
Nick Roy: Well, ideally, more resource-management issues than decarbonization ones, because hopefully we’ve decarbonized a lot! But that might be too optimistic …
Steven Witkin: I think that something I have come to realize even more while I’ve been at RFF is that something that’s really important to solving a lot of really tricky issues is trying to use less. Use less resources, use less electricity in buildings, produce food with less. All those things really interest me, and I think that that will probably influence where I go going forward, is figuring out how to keep doing what we’re doing, but smarter, and using less resources.
Sophie Pesek: Currently, what my research at RFF is, is related to both climate impacts (which is what happens to jobs when there’s flooding or health when there's weather volatility), while also things on the just transition (which is what happens to communities that rely on fossil fuel as we transition to clean energy). So, that sort of dichotomy is something that I'm definitely interested in exploring in the future—kind of looking at how we can take steps to protect the natural world while making sure no one gets left behind while we're doing it.
So, I'm definitely interested in applying that to the international scale and thinking about how people in the most disadvantaged places can really have a chance to develop and experience all the important things that are necessary human rights, like clean water and clean air, while making sure that they have the best economic opportunities they can have.
Emily Joiner: Twenty years ahead, the problems we're facing are only going to be more intensified, particularly thinking about water and food.
One issue that I've really been paying attention to in the news is the heat wave in India right now and how that has jeopardized a lot of crop yields, which are already sort of in flux due to the war in Ukraine, as well. Thinking about how that's going to disrupt global food supply—I think situations like that will just get more and more common. So, I think 20 years down the line, there may be more of a focus on food, food trade, agricultural adaptation, and managing water.
Obviously, electricity will always be there: the food-water-energy nexus. I can see those becoming more intensified fields of research, whereas what I do right now—a lot of nonmarket valuation, which involves getting values for cost-benefit analysis—might not be as imperative.
Alexandra Thompson: I think that all environmental research and environmental policy questions will basically revolve around two issues. The first is climate change; the second is environmental justice. And I think that's appropriate. And I think, whether it's wildlife, coastal hazards, carbon mitigation, climate change adaptation—it will all be around climate change and environmental justice. And that will be the lens through which we address those.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, I feel like we're moving in that direction now, but not everyone's quite there yet.
Okay, last substantive question: When you imagine yourself in the future doing work, do you imagine yourself being a researcher, continuing to look into these issues in depth? Do you imagine yourself as a policymaker, as an advocate, as an entrepreneur, or something else?
Steven Witkin: I have a feeling that I wouldn't want to just go into a prescriptive role or purely a research role without going out and experiencing some of the issues that we're actually facing, along with the actual roadblocks that industry and communities face. I think that my path will lead me toward getting some of that direct experience, and then maybe after experiencing those roadblocks, maybe back to researching more about it. But I think I want to be directly involved as a doer and try to come up with solutions that will be practical and used.
But yeah, I mean, I think that's really satisfying—implementing these good practices that we want to see everywhere, even if it's just in one small place.
Nick Roy: Something that I think I didn't know really existed until working at RFF, or until knowing about RFF, was the university fellows who teach and do their own research, but also work with policymakers and decisionmakers. And I think something like that is sort of like the dream, where you get to work with the next generation of researchers or students or whoever might be going into the private sector, and talk to them about the things that you learn in research, while also doing your own independent research and advancing the field that you study, and also talking to policymakers about how they can use that research to develop new policies that can help achieve their goals. So, I think something like that would be ideal, but that's kind of a … it's a dream job.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. Well, it's a dream job getting to work with you and all of the RAs here at RFF, because you're so committed and intelligent and dedicated and caring and fun to be around. So, it's really our pleasure to get to work with you.
Sophie Pesek: I definitely see my role as more of a researcher. But I would love to interface with policymakers and businesspeople all the time. I think a specific thing that’s really exciting to me is open source data—doing something like a distributed network of water sensors, or air quality sensors, that could provide all the information necessary for a community to monitor the natural environment around them, which would help increase their connectedness to the natural world, but also enable members of the community who are most qualified to be the decisionmakers on the ground to make decisions that are best for them.
Emily Joiner: I definitely see myself as a researcher. I think that's sort of my inclination, but I think, if I feel that my research isn't having an impact or is sort of divorced from the idea of doing good or having a positive outcome, I might want to do something more with boots on the ground and actually getting my hands dirty. So, who knows—maybe there's a career change down the line, depending on how the climate crisis shapes up.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, you never know. I mean, many of the folks we interview on the podcast started off doing one thing in their career and then ended up doing something entirely different. And I'm one of them, so it can be a lot of fun.
Emily Joiner: Great.
Alexandra Thompson: I love the term “researcher” because it’s so broad. You can do such a wide range of activities: it can be data work, it could be writing, it could be lit reviews. So, I see myself as either a researcher or a practitioner, doing pretty much those same things—whether I’m answering policy questions or implementing policy.
Daniel Raimi: All right, Alex, what's on the top of your stack? It could be a book, could be a TV show, could be a podcast, just anything that you think is great and that you would recommend.
Alexandra Thompson: Anything by James Michener. I guess historical fiction, mostly place based. So, he’s written some books called Chesapeake, Alaska, Hawaii, Caribbean—I’m a big fan of all those.
They're great, because they range from—like in Chesapeake, he covers the geologic history through Indigenous people, through European settlement, through I think the ’80s, which is when the book came out.
Daniel Raimi: Sophie, last question: What's on the top of your stack? What would you recommend to our audience that you think is really great? Could be a TV show, a book, podcast, article, anything.
Sophie Pesek: I'm actually just starting a book club with a bunch of other graduates from my university. And everyone said, What is one really fun book that has a bunch of little climate vignettes, but also kind of is engaging to read? And I just am absolutely in love with Elizabeth Kolbert’s Under a White Sky. That is my favorite book within the last year, so I have recommended that as our first read.
Daniel Raimi: Emily, what's at the top of your stack?
Emily Joiner: I'm currently reading The Age of Revolution by Eric Hobsbawm, which is a history book. I think it's super enlightening if you're interested in the American Revolution or the French Revolution, sort of the spreading revolutionary spirit of the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution and how that transforms society. I'm trying to read more history books.
Another book I would recommend is Rip It Up and Start Again by Simon Reynolds, which is a history of post-punk. I like post-punk music a lot. And I think if you have any interest in that late-’70s, ’80s scene, where a lot of genres were coming together to make some really interesting stuff, I would check that out.
Daniel Raimi: Awesome. What's an example of post-punk—like, Talking Heads or something?
Emily Joiner: Yeah, that's kind of new wave post-punk. I think classically the example is Joy Division.
Daniel Raimi: Okay, yeah. Last question, Steven: What is on the top of your stack?
Steven Witkin: One thing that I read recently, that I'm sure a lot of listeners have also read, is Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac. I just think it's really vital. It was a good reminder that everything's connected in the ecosystem, and you can be aware of them and be aware of how you affect them and how things around you are affecting them. So, I think it's really important to read.
Part of the book is, I guess you could say, an almanac—it's a kind of a natural history of the place where he lives in the Sand Counties of Wisconsin. He uses that area that's experienced a transition, from more natural to agriculture and a little bit back again, as a really good study area for how we can impact the environment and how things change over long periods of time.
Daniel Raimi: All right. Final, final question. What's on the top of your stack?
Nick Roy: I'm not a big TV person, and I recently watched this show called Severance, which is basically—the premise is that, if a biotech company could split the brain of its employees into its “work brain” and its “human brain,” and they don't have memories of either one, what happens? And there's a lot of different ways it can go, but the show I think does a really good job of letting you have your own thoughts about what's going on while still having a story.
And there's a lot of things about how society organizes, and how work relates to our life, and how we connect and get meaning from those things. And working somewhere like RFF, where it doesn't feel like you're being exploited because you like working here, and it's something you're passionate about—it's not some boring job—it makes you appreciate it, but also it makes you realize where work gives you meaning in life. And I think that's something that I really enjoyed about that show.
Daniel Raimi: Thank you for the recommendation. And thank you for doing this! That was great. We're done.
Alexandra Thompson: Thank you.
Steven Witkin: Thank you.
Emily Joiner: Of course.
Nick Roy: Yeah, thank you Daniel.
Sophie Pesek: Awesome, thank you.
Daniel Raimi: You've been listening to Resources Radio. Learn how to support Resources for the Future at rff.org/support. If you have a minute, we'd really appreciate you leaving us a rating or a comment on your podcast platform of choice. Also, feel free to send us your suggestions for future episodes.
Resources Radio is a podcast from Resources for the Future. RFF is an independent, nonprofit research institution in Washington, DC. Our mission is to improve environmental, energy, and natural resource decisions through impartial economic research and policy engagement.
The views expressed on this podcast are solely those of the podcast guests and may differ from those of RFF experts, its officers, or its directors. RFF does not take positions on specific legislative proposals. Resources Radio is produced by Elizabeth Wason, with music by me, Daniel Raimi. Join us next week for another episode.