#MeetTopEnvEcon – Karine Nyborg

Karine Nyborg

Current position: Professor of economics, University of Oslo

Year of birth:  1962

Homepage: http://folk.uio.no/karineny/

IDEAS profile: https://ideas.repec.org/e/pny7.html


I am very happy that Karine Nyborg, Professor of Economics at the University of Oslo, took the time to answer my questions for the Meet Top Environmental Economics (#MeetTopEnvEcon) series. Karine Nyborg is one of the main researchers that brought social norms into environmental economics. There are few others who have pushed this line of literature further than her and her co-authors. One article that you may want to read to get some insights into her views of and contributions to social norms in environmental economics is her recent publication Social Norms and the Environment. Karine Nyborg was also, up to now, the only female president of the European Association of Environmental and Resource Economists (2012-2013), is a member of the Academia Europaea, and is on the Chair of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Beijer Institute for Ecological Econonomics.

I can strongly advise you to not miss her presentations or keynotes. Karine Nyborg gave this fantastic keynote speech at the EAERE conference in Athens in 2017. Also, it is not entirely clear to me whether, if asked, she would view herself primarily as an economist, or as a fiction writer. I have been told that her books are a charm.

I am happy to announce that I am working on a series of what I call Express Views. These are very short interviews of environmental economics that are giving interesting insights into their thoughts. Here is my interview with Karine.

Could you please give me a brief background of yourself and your main research interests.

I grew up in a small town not far from Oslo, spending lots of time on interests such as playing music and amateur theatre, with no intention whatsoever of becoming an economist. After finishing high school, I spent a couple of years travelling and working as nursing assistant. Eventually, I missed studying – working in the health sector was interesting, but tough, they’re really heroes, which I guess I was not – and since I liked math and found politics both intriguing and important, I decided to study economics. Environmental protection has always been a concern for me, so when I got the opportunity to do environmental economics research at the Research Department of Statistics Norway after finishing my Masters, I grabbed it. My PhD thesis was based on work I did there. After the PhD, I went to California with my husband and kids, spending a year at Stanford University as a visiting scholar. In 2001 I became affiliated with the Ragnar Frisch Center for Economic Research, and in 2007 I became a professor at the University of Oslo.

It took me some time to get there, though. I never felt that I needed to hurry. After my Masters graduation, I spent five years before embarking on my doctoral studies. During that time I had three children, and spent quite some time at home with them. Throughout the years, I’ve hardly ever worked full-time as a researcher; mostly, I’ve been working between 70 and 95 percent of a full position, and at least until my kids grew up and moved out, I’ve been treating those limits as real, not just formal.

The last fifteen years or so, I’ve been working part-time to pursue my other career as a fiction writer. So far I’ve published a novel, two short story collections, and a small essay book mixing fiction and economics. My latest short story collection, called The Ballad of the Invisible Hand, actually mixes fiction and economics, too, and while it’s written in Norwegian, two of the short stories have been translated to English: Adam in the Perfectly Competitive Market (which I consider an economic theory piece in sci-fi format, although written for a general audience) and The Convex Hull Will Always Exist.

Spending time on other activities leaves less time for research, but brings new perspectives to one’s economics thinking. I’ve always been fascinated by topics such as ethics, moral philosophy, psychology and social interaction, interests which have shaped my economics research agenda. To understand such topics you cannot spend all your time in the office, although that’s important too. Combining different ideas in new, possibly surprising ways has always been an ideal to me. If this ideal has left a mark on my research, I’d be happy.

What article/book of yours would you call your best?

My first short story collection. But that’s not what you had in mind. Among my research publications, I might choose my paper with Brekke and Kverndokk, An Economic Model of Moral Motivation (JPubEc 2003). We worked a lot with that one, and I’m quite proud of it.

Would you mind giving a list of essential articles that a young researcher in your line of research should read?

Let me instead recommend a few books that really inspired me – and taught me great lessons – when I was a young researcher myself: On Ethics and Economics by Amartya Sen, Micromotives and Macrobehavior by Thomas Schelling, and An Inquiry into Well-Being and Destitution by Partha Dasgupta.

And could you be so kind and give a reference for a policy-oriented article or book that sums the research in your field for an interested policy maker?

In that case, let me suggest a policy paper I published a couple of years ago jointly with a large interdisciplinary group of economists, ecologists and psychologists: Social Norms as Solutions (Science Vol. 354, Issue 6308, 42-43, 2016).

In what direction would you like to see environmental economics develop? What would be the obstacles?

Economists, including environmental economists, need to take social interaction more seriously – its impact on behaviors as well as on human welfare. It is problematic, however, that the various social sciences live such separate lives, almost as if we were studying completely distinct worlds. Our methodologies and concepts are so different that it is hard to learn from each other. Behavioral economics currently helps improving a bit on this by bringing knowledge from other fields to economic theory, “translating” these insights into the language of economics.

What do you believe are the big open questions when it comes to social norms and environmental issues?

Whether and how one can use policy to tip society to better, more environment-friendly social coordination equilibria. Not only should we know more about how such tipping can be realized; we also need a better understand of the potential dangers of such attempts, such as ending up in an even worse equilibrium that we were not even aware of.

If you had to give young researchers in environmental economics some advice, what would it be?

First things first: investing time is crucial for your career, but even more crucial for your love life, your kids’ happiness, and your relationship to nature.

That being said, you need to be an excellent economist to become an excellent environmental economist. Be careful to learn the basic methodologies well, and don’t stick only to those parts of economics that you expect to be the most relevant ones for studying environmental issues. To create your own, independent environmental economics research agenda, you need a broad knowledge of economics.

How do you explain that there are so few female (environmental) economics professors? (Especially given the fact that women tend to be more altruistic and greener and thus more concerned with environmental issues.) Is there anything that can or should be done about this? 

The experimental literature is mixed on whether women are indeed more altruistic – but this is a problem for economics in general, not just environmental economics. I’ve struggled to understand this. In Oslo at least, there’s been a reasonable gender balance among economics students for thirty years or so – but most females leave academia after their Master or PhD. I don’t think there is one simple explanation. One important issue, however, is that for economists at least, it is so much easier to get a permanent position outside of academia. Students finishing their PhDs are in their prime child-bearing years, and women still tend to take more responsibility for child-rearing than men. If you plan to have kids soon (or already have some), and expect to have the main responsibility for them in the years to come, you might not be tempted by the prospect of a seemingly endless row of temporary positions, continuously having to excel in order to secure the next one. I think it’s a shame that academia is unable to offer young scholars a better deal than that. After the PhD level, it should be normal to get a permanent academic position. All that continuous competition certainly does some good to academia, but it also triggers a self-sorting process making us lose some of the greatest talents even before the race begins.

How do you mostly get your ideas?

By getting provoked. If I disagree strongly with someone, I ought to be able to come up with something better myself. That makes me think.

Are you more interested in fundamental research or do you try to shape actual policy through your research?  

Both. I have been a regular op-ed writer for several Norwegian newspapers, and I try to use my professional insights to contribute to current policy debates. The balance can be difficult, of course. When participating in policy debate, you are never only a professional, you always have to add some personal judgement as well. If not, you are not contributing. Doing this in a reasonable, relevant and transparent way is an art  in itself – which I find well worth developing.

And now for a bit of fun. Do you know the concept of holidays or do you take your papers to the beach?

I definitely don’t take my papers to the beach. Mostly, I don’t even bring them home after office hours. I never devoted my entire energy to economics, and I don’t want to. There are so many things in life – for example, nature, love, family life, literature – that I cherish so much that turning my back on them would feel almost like blasphemy. If not after office hours, in weekends, during holidays – then when? Life is not endless. I know this is easy for me to say, since I have tenure and don’t have the same pressure to perform as young scholars. But for me personally, this is the philosophy I’ve always followed. If I had to make the choice, then rather than giving it up, I would stop being an academic.

 Please feel free to suggest someone else whose answers you would like to see.

Scott Barrett. I’m a great fan of his work.