In this week’s episode, host Daniel Raimi talks with researchers Neha Khanna and Nick Kuminoff about the diversity of scholars in the field of environmental and resource economics. Khanna is a professor of economics at Binghamton University, and Kuminoff is an associate professor of economics at Arizona State University. Khanna and Kuminoff discuss the gender equity of authorship in environmental economics journals, equity in tenure-track academic jobs, how diversity in a research field contributes to the advancement of scientific knowledge, the state of the community of environmental economists, and prospects for early-career scholars.
Listen to the Podcast
- Data on diversity among researchers are scarce: “While the intention of addressing potential discrimination within the profession is genuine, we don’t have a good way of assessing whether we are making progress or the impact of any of our efforts. This is something that plagues academia—not just environmental economics, or even economics as a whole. This occurs because data on aspects of diversity, equity, and inclusion are not systematically being collected. At best, they’re sparse. Where data are available, they’re usually gathered in a very ad hoc fashion.” —Neha Khanna (6:22)
- Gender equity is lagging in professional organizations: “Women are carrying a greater burden of administrative responsibilities in professional associations, but they have lower representation in things of academic repute, like higher faculty ranks or authorship in the most prestigious journals.” —Neha Khanna (12:48)
- Intellectual diversity in a field of research improves the scholarship in that field: “Environmental economics is like any area of science. It needs intellectual diversity in order to thrive. We’re only going to be able to advance scientific knowledge if we’re developing new ideas, new methods, and new applications.” —Nick Kuminoff (16:06)
- Economics research can produce insights on the benefits and costs of professional service: “It’d be interesting to study how different forms of professional service … affect economists’ productivity, salaries, ability to move up the job ladder, and utility. Labor economists try to answer those kinds of questions for the workforce in general. It would be interesting to take models from labor economics and move the lens onto ourselves.” —Nick Kuminoff (28:55)
Top of the Stack
- “New Evidence on Diversity in Environmental and Resource Economics” by Nick Kuminoff, Katherine E. Ciaramello, Hanna M. Dooley, Martin D. Heintzelman, Neha Khanna, Lea-Rachel Kosnik, Lynne Y. Lewis, and Eric Trimble
- Don’t Look Up film
- “Is Climate Change like Diabetes or an Asteroid?” by Ted Nordhaus
- The Three-Body Problem in the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy by Liu Cixin
The Full Transcript
Daniel Raimi: Hello and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I’m your host, Daniel Raimi.
Today, we talk with Neha Khanna, a professor of economics at Binghamton University, and Nick Kuminoff, an associate professor of economics at Arizona State University. Along with a team of coauthors, Neha and Nick have published a fascinating look at the diversity of scholars within the field of environmental and resource economics.
In today’s conversation, we’ll describe what they found in terms of gender diversity, scholarly backgrounds, and more. We’ll also talk about what it’s like to work in the field of environmental economics, what the field is doing to try to enhance diversity, and how the community welcomes new scholars into the fold. Stay with us.
Nick Kuminoff and Neha Khanna, welcome to Resources Radio.
Nick Kuminoff: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Neha Khanna: Likewise.
Daniel Raimi: Nick and Neha, you’re both new to the show. We’re happy to have you here to talk about this interesting new paper that you’ve authored with a variety of other coauthors. We always ask our guests when we start the show to share how they got inspired to work on environmental issues in their lives. How did you each become interested in working on these topics?
Neha Khanna: Like a good economist, I’m going to give you an answer that has both a systematic and a random component to it.
The systematic component is that I grew up in New Delhi, India. It’s a place I still call home, and it’s where I’m calling into your program from. As you probably know, Delhi is one of the most polluted cities in the world.
To give you some context, Delhi’s Air Quality Index is above 350 today, and the primary pollutant is particulate matter (PM2.5). That is fine particulate matter, which averages around 100 micrograms per cubic meter. That’s roughly 8–9 times the national standard set by the US Environmental Protection Agency, which is 12 micrograms per cubic meter. Again, we are at 100. It’s almost impossible not to think about environmental issues here. That’s the systematic thing. It’s always front and center.
The random component is a question that a former classmate of mine asked me when I was in graduate school—if I knew how much water I use every time I flush the toilet. At the time, I had no clue whatsoever. In fact, I don’t think I was conscious of how dependent my life was on environmental resources.
That pushed me over the fence. Once I completed my master’s in economics from the Delhi School of Economics, I began to work as a researcher at a local think tank that focused on energy-related airborne pollutants. It was only a matter of time before I decided to do a PhD in environmental economics. To this day, I work on air quality–related issues.
Daniel Raimi: Nick, how about you? How did you get interested in this line of work?
Nick Kuminoff: My experience was quite different than Neha’s experience. I was lucky to grow up north of San Francisco in an unpolluted area surrounded by open space and state parks. When I was little, I spent a lot of my free time playing outside, building tree forts, and catching crawdads in the creek. This is back in the free-range parenting days of the 1980s.
When I got a bit older, I did a lot of hiking and mountain biking. I ran cross country in high school. I grew up appreciating the value of open space as a public good. Even as a kid, I could see that open space wasn’t free. My parents had to pay a lot to live there, and that meant giving up other kinds of luxuries. That trade-off was salient for me, and it pushed me to think about land use planning and environmental policy.
When I went on to be an undergrad at the University of California, Davis, I was lucky again and worked as a research assistant with Dan Sumner at the Agricultural Issues Center. He pushed me to think more rigorously about the economics of open space. How do we measure it? How do we optimally allocate land to housing versus open space? How much are people willing to pay to live near open space, and how can we learn about their willingness to pay by looking at variation in housing prices?
Those questions have always fascinated me. They pushed me to academia, and I’ve been working on them ever since.
Daniel Raimi: We have very different backgrounds coming to these topics, but how you each became interested in them makes sense.
Today, we’re going to talk about your recent paper with numerous coauthors. It’s in the Review of Environmental Economics and Policy. The paper is called “New Evidence on Diversity in Environmental and Resource Economics.” Can you give us a sense of what the motivation behind this analysis was? How did you and the coauthors end up studying this topic?
Neha Khanna: Around 2019, much of the economics profession made a strong commitment to enhancing diversity, equity, and inclusion in the profession. The Association for Environmental and Resource Economics (AERE), which is the primary association for the field in the United States (and in the world, I dare say), made a similar commitment. As part of this commitment, AERE established a standing committee on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Many of the authors of this article were members of that committee at the time. Some of the other authors were students at Arizona State University, where Nick is, and they assisted him in gathering and collating the data. That’s how this paper came about. One of the tasks that the committee took upon itself was to take stock of the state of diversity within our profession.
We wanted to do this because, while the intention of addressing potential discrimination within the profession is genuine, we don’t have a good way of assessing whether we are making progress or the impact of any of our efforts. This is something that plagues academia—not just environmental economics, or even economics as a whole. This occurs because data on aspects of diversity, equity, and inclusion are not systematically being collected. At best, they’re sparse. Where data are available, they’re usually gathered in a very ad hoc fashion.
Our goal as the committee and authors of this paper was twofold. Our first goal was to systematically gather data on some aspects of diversity. We have to be clear here: we take a narrow view of diversity in this particular paper and focus primarily on women, but our goal was to provide a snapshot of the state of diversity within environmental and natural resource economics.
While our primary focus is women in the field, we also include other measures, and this is one of the contributions of this paper. These measures include academic and professional rank; employer; graduate and undergraduate alma maters; degree year; and in which country authors are publishing in the flagship journal of AERE, which is the Journal of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economics. That was our first goal.
The second goal was to provide a benchmark against which we can measure our progress towards meeting our stated goals. Change is slow, and we need to be careful to measure where we are going, how we are going, are we on track, and so on. We also hope that, by doing so, we will provide a framework and a model for other professional associations and organizations to follow and build upon so that we can collectively make a real difference.
Daniel Raimi: I noticed you did not mention race as one element of diversity that you measure in the paper, and I’m guessing that’s because we simply don’t have the data. Is that correct?
Neha Khanna: That is correct. Most of the data that we gathered and analyzed in this paper are data that were either self-reported by various members of AERE when they renew their memberships. There are a lot of gaps in those data. If you ever join a survey or renew a membership in an association, oftentimes at the end there will be a question collecting or requesting your demographic information. I bet most of us skip that question because it’s another two minutes of our time, and nobody wants to do that. That question is the source of our information.
Nick and his students at Arizona State put in a humongous effort to go to individual members’ websites and gather data using things like pronouns or other information that they had used on their websites. They use a detailed database and algorithm to predict gender expression based on people’s first names and given different ethnicities and cultural backgrounds.
The question of race and identifying race is very hard and fraught with all kinds of difficulties and, potentially, issues of ethics. We wanted to stay away from that. Our hope is that, through this paper, we raise awareness of the importance of answering those demographic questions that I referred to and encourage our members to volunteer that information to us in a way that best represents who they believe they are. That’s the main reason we focused on things that we had better ways of predicting accurately.
Daniel Raimi: What are the key results that you find with regard to the distribution of professional responsibilities across gender in environmental and resource economics?
Neha Khanna: We have two or three key results, none of which are too surprising, but they might surprise some people.
One result that came as a surprise to me was that the share of women in the Association for Environmental and Resource Economics has remained remarkably constant since 2000. The share is around 29 percent. Let’s round that up to 30 percent. This share is almost identical to the share of women receiving PhDs in economics at institutions of higher education in the United States. That seems reasonable.
What was surprising is that this share of roughly 29–30 percent is nearly double the share of women in tenure-track faculty positions in the United States, which is around 16 percent. Furthermore, among the women faculty, the vast majority are at the lower ranks—assistant or associate professor. Few are at the rank of full professor. The fact that we have greater gender diversity at the lower ranks possibly reflects recent efforts to enhance diversity within the profession, which I look at as a very good thing.
Likewise, if we look at the share of women authors publishing in the flagship journal of AERE, which we started in 2014, it’s also around 16–18 percent—approximately half of the share of the women members of AERE. If we go back to our previous journal in 1990, which was the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, that share is still the same. Again, there is this skewedness, or unevenness, in the share of women in positions of academic privilege and authority.
Still, what we see is that women have a much greater representation in the leadership of AERE, where their share has ranged from 30 to 70 percent in the two decades between 2000 and 2020. Those numbers vary a lot, because the absolute number of leaders is small. We are looking at about 10–11 people, so a change in one person can lead to a huge percentage change.
However, this overrepresentation of women in leadership is typical in the economics profession. It’s not just unique to environmental economics, but it does imply that women are carrying a disproportionate share of administrative responsibilities.
We can’t say whether it’s because women are particularly well-suited to these roles or because they’re more generous about giving their time back to the profession. It could be either one. We have not analyzed that yet. If it’s the latter, it could potentially be coming at the cost of their own professional development. That’s something we have yet to analyze.
In terms of the distribution of responsibilities, women are carrying a greater burden of administrative responsibilities in professional associations, but they have lower representation in things of academic repute, like higher faculty ranks or authorship in the most prestigious journal.
Daniel Raimi: One detail to add for context is that the leadership positions that you’re describing are not paid, right? It’s not like people are getting additional resources for performing these roles. They’re typically unpaid, and they reflect a generosity of spirit in many cases.
Neha Khanna: That is exactly right. They’re all voluntary positions. The leaders of AERE are a hardworking group of people. Everybody puts in hours.
Daniel Raimi: Neha, one more question for you. You talked about how these shares have changed or not changed over time. Is there anything more you’d like to say about how these distributions have changed over the data period that you analyze?
Neha Khanna: Compared to the STEM fields (which are science, technology, engineering, and math), economics has lagged behind in terms of the share of women in the field. However, the share of women authors in our flagship journal has trended upwards in the last few years, starting in 2018, and it currently stands at around 26 percent. That’s a good thing.
Daniel Raimi: Absolutely. We’re going to refer to that journal as JAERE for today’s show. That’s the Journal of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists.
This next question is about JAERE, and I’m going to direct it towards Nick. Can you talk a bit about the schools that the authors in JAERE come from and why that educational background matters, whether in terms of professional training or the representation of society within the field?
Nick Kuminoff: First, why does it matter? Environmental economics is like any area of science. It needs intellectual diversity in order to thrive. We’re only going to be able to advance scientific knowledge if we’re developing new ideas, new methods, and new applications. How do we measure intellectual diversity, then? We don’t have a perfect way to measure it, but economists who’ve thought about this before us have developed some imperfect measures, and we use those measures in our paper.
One way that we can approximate intellectual diversity in an academic journal like JAERE is by looking at how concentrated its authorship is across universities. Here’s a thought experiment. Imagine we randomly pick two economists from University A, from the same department of economics. They’re likely to talk to each other, to work together, and to be exposed to a lot of the same ideas from going to the same seminars and working with the same students. Therefore, they’re going to share similar scientific ideas.
On the other hand, if you pick one economist from University A and another from University B, their ideas are more likely to differ. This implies that, if more of the authors who publish in a journal like JAERE are affiliated with the same university, then that journal may be less intellectually diverse.
With that idea in mind, one of the headline results from our paper is that about a quarter of JAERE authors work for the 10 most prolific employers. Eight of those employers are universities. The other two are Resources for the Future and the National Center for Environmental Economics, which is run by the US Environmental Protection Agency.
25 percent—is that number big or small? Does it tell us JAERE is intellectually diverse or intellectually concentrated? We can’t answer those questions in isolation, but we can provide context to compare JAERE to other journals.
A couple years ago, Jim Heckman and Sidharth Moktan published an article in the Journal of Economic Literature where they calculated the same concentration statistics for what are usually considered to be the five most prestigious journals in the whole discipline of economics—the so-called “Top Five.” They include the American Economic Review, Econometrica, Journal of Political Economy, the Quarterly Journal of Economics, and Review of Economic Studies.
At those journals, 10 universities account for between 40 and 70 percent of all authors. The most extreme example is the Quarterly Journal of Economics: 70 percent of its authors work at just 10 universities. The journal is published by Harvard, the editors are from Harvard, and 25 percent of its authors are affiliated with Harvard. At JAERE, you have to add the top 10 universities together to get to 25 percent of authorship.
These are statistics that may seem striking, but it’s important to keep in mind they’re just statistics. They don’t prove or disprove the presence of bias or any kind of favoritism in the publication process. They’re just describing intellectual concentration in different journals.
The bottom line is that when we look at the concentration of authors across universities, JAERE appears to be more intellectually diverse than the top-ranked general interest journals in economics. That might help to explain why the environmental economics field has thrived and grown so much in recent years.
Daniel Raimi: I’d like to ask both of you more of a personal question, which is for each of you to reflect on your personal experiences and how much they match some of the findings in this analysis. I’m curious whether you have found the AERE community to be, on the whole, a welcoming one or one where there is a lot of room for improvement to welcome new members and diverse members into the association.
Nick Kuminoff: I’ve always found the AERE community to be incredibly friendly, welcoming, and constructive. Whenever I go to AERE events, it’s great to meet new people and to catch up with all my older AERE friends. My older AERE friends include people that I met when I first started presenting research as a PhD student 20 years ago at places like Camp Resources. I think AERE is terrific.
Where I think my personal experience with AERE differs from the findings that we’ve talked about and that we report in our paper is who I would consider as AERE’s extended family. When I say “extended family,” I mean people who attend AERE events like our summer conference, but who may or may not be AERE members.
My personal impression is that that group is more diverse than the AERE membership pool. We see preliminary evidence of this in our article. AERE did a demographic survey of people who attended last year’s summer conference and found that about 41 percent of the respondents identified as female. That’s a lot higher than the approximate 30 percent of AERE membership that was female in 2020.
There seems to be some attrition in diversity. Maybe some people come to AERE events but don’t join as members, or some members leave academia. Reducing that attrition is something that could help AERE to meet its commitment to diversity.
I’d expect that we are going to see some movement in that direction, because AERE has been adding fantastic programs in past years to target more junior members. AERE created a graduate student engagement program that includes professional development panels that have been well reviewed. It also created a mentoring program where junior scholars are mentored by more senior AERE members. Looking ahead, I would expect that those programs are going to increase diversity and attract more members to AERE in the years ahead.
Daniel Raimi: Neha, how about you? What has your experience been like within AERE?
Neha Khanna: My experience has been similar. I have been a member since I was a graduate student. AERE was the only association I joined as a graduate student. It’s my professional home, and I literally do consider it a home. It’s my family.
AERE has done a lot for the profession, and it’s continuing to do a lot more along the lines that Nick mentioned. I’m excited and grateful for all the time that various AERE members put in to increase diversity, to help AERE, and, therefore, to help the economics profession.
If you happen to be from a not-top school, however—let’s say you attended a great second-tier school—AERE can feel a little intimidating. I came from a school outside the top 10, and when I first started as a young faculty member, and I started to attend AERE conferences, I did feel a bit like an outsider. I don’t think it’s intentional. AERE is like a family, and you’re the new person who has married into the family. You have to then make yourself a part of the family. There is a feeling that AERE can be a bit like a club, because people tend to know each other, and newer people find it hard to break into some of those networks.
The efforts that AERE has put into its graduate student mentoring and engagement programs are designed to address those kinds of issues. AERE is absolutely fantastic, but if some of this concentration would get a little diluted, it would be great. For example, if you look at the leadership, there is, historically, a huge fraction of the leaders that are associated with Resources for the Future, which is an institutional member.
AERE is changing that. It’s happening in an organic, natural way, which is fantastic. Like I said, it’s my professional home, and it’s always going to be that.
Daniel Raimi: As you were both speaking, I was thinking about New Orleans, where many of us were together in January at the big Allied Social Science Associations conference, which hosts all of economics. There was also a lot of AERE activity, including a reception and lots of talks. It really did feel, at least to me, like a home and a real community.
Anytime I saw a young scholar or graduate student at the conference in New Orleans, I saw AERE members engaging with them enthusiastically. I saw AERE members welcoming young scholars and students into the community and encouraging them to talk, share ideas, apply to new professional opportunities, and take advantage of the community that AERE offers.
I hope that young scholars who are listening, even if they do feel a bit of that intimidation, can have some confidence that, when they do reach out and try to connect with people, they’re going to be welcomed with open arms. At least, that’s what I’ve seen. Nick, Neha—I’m curious if you’ve seen similar dynamics.
Neha Khanna: I completely agree with you. There is a programmatic effort to engage younger scholars and bring them into the fold, but it is happening organically, as well.
Nick Kuminoff: I agree.
Daniel Raimi: Nick, you and your coauthors make a variety of suggestions for future research. Can you talk about the recommendations in the paper?
Nick Kuminoff: We’ve spent most of our time today talking about what our study finds. Let me start my answer to your question by talking about what our study doesn’t find.
Our findings don’t provide any evidence that there’s bias or discrimination of any kind, either in the publication process at JAERE or in any aspect of AERE business. If AERE membership or JAERE authorship is less diverse than we’d like, it doesn’t necessarily mean there’s bias or inequities. There are other explanations. At the same time, we’re not saying that biases and inequities don’t exist. Our study just wasn’t designed to detect them. Hopefully, that comes through clearly in our article. It’s important to say.
That said, AERE’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion implies that we have to learn more about the causes and consequences of the statistics that we’re using to measure diversity. Our first research suggestion along those lines is a simple one: AERE should continue to collect diversity data and report statistics so that we can track how the composition of AERE membership continues to evolve in the years ahead.
Digging deeper, it’d be interesting to study if or how diversity intersects with the publication process in environmental economics. There have been prior studies along those lines, but they do not look at environmental economics as a field or compare it to other fields. The work that has been done for economics in general has focused mainly on gender, and there may be more to do to study other dimensions of diversity, like the role of professional networks.
The last thing I’ll say is that it could be valuable to study the returns-to-public-goods provision in AERE and academia more broadly. As Neha pointed out earlier, women tend to take on more leadership roles in professional economics associations. That’s true for both AERE and the American Economics Association. But why? And what are the consequences?
It’d be interesting to study how different forms of professional service, like serving on the AERE board or refereeing and editing journals, affect economists’ productivity, salaries, ability to move up the job ladder, and utility. Labor economists try to answer those kinds of questions for the workforce in general. It would be interesting to take models from labor economics and move the lens onto ourselves.
What we find from doing that isn’t clear. Of course, any kind of professional service has a time cost. It crowds out other kinds of productivity, but service can have benefits, too. It’s possible that job markets may reward some forms of service, and service can create opportunities to meet collaborators and learn from them.
To give an example from my own experience, Neha and I met by serving on AERE’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee. We got to write this paper together with our incredible coauthor team, and, along the way, we learned that we have a shared interest in thinking about how the distributional effects of pollution exposure arise from heterogeneity and information that people have about pollution compared to sorting on income and preferences. Service to AERE created an opportunity for me to learn and benefit professionally.
While my experience is just an example, if researchers could measure these types of costs and benefits in a broader way, the findings could help us understand the returns to professional service.
Daniel Raimi: Those are great suggestions, and we’ll certainly be on the lookout for them as people take them up and run with them in the months and years ahead.
This has been a fascinating conversation. Thank you so much for your work on this and to your coauthors, as well. Let’s go to our final segment, Top of the Stack, where we ask you to recommend something that’s at the top of your literal or metaphorical reading stack. It can be related to the environment or not. We’re not that picky. Neha, what’s on the top of your stack?
Neha Khanna: I start every day by reading the newspaper, no matter where in the world I am. If I happen to be in a place that I’m not usually in, I try to find the local newspaper, and I scour it for environmental stories. That’s how I keep myself relevant to the field, and a lot of my work has come out of reading the newspaper or sitting on my front porch and observing people interact with the built environment.
I do have one depressing recommendation, which is the movie Don’t Look Up. I saw it a few months ago, and I think it’s a good parody on the state of where we are as a species.
Daniel Raimi: That movie—goodness—it’s funny. I teach a class at the University of Michigan on energy and climate policy, and for years, I’ve assigned a reading from the Breakthrough Institute called, “Is Climate Change More Like an Asteroid or Diabetes?” Then, they made a movie where climate change is like an asteroid, so it made for good fodder for my class.
Nick, how about you? What’s on the top of your stack?
Nick Kuminoff: I try to unwind at night by reading, and my favorite genre is probably science fiction. I really enjoyed reading a book called The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin. It’s part of a trilogy called Remembrance of Earth’s Past, and it touches on themes of public goods, natural resource use, and game theory. It’s basically the best kind of science fiction. It’s entertaining, original, and thought provoking. I would definitely recommend it to any sci-fi fans. I also heard Netflix is now adapting it as a TV series this year. I’ve got my fingers crossed that they do a good job, but it’s going to be hard to live up to the books.
Daniel Raimi: I’ve heard great things about those books, as well.
All right. Neha, Nick—thank you so much for these recommendations, for your work, and for joining us today on Resources Radio. We really appreciate it. It was great having you on.
Nick Kuminoff: Thank you.
Neha Khanna: Thank you for having us. It’s really been a pleasure.
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