November 16, 2020

Smart Prosperity Institute’s Fulbright Visiting Research Chair program - one of our signature academic partnerships - is currently in its sixth year. We are excited to host three Research Chairs in 2020-21 -- two focused on Environmental Policy: Lew Fulton (University of California, Davis) and Kenneth Richards (Indiana University), and one focused on the Environment and the Economy: Jonathan Rubin (University of Maine). Although we can’t yet welcome our Chairs to Ottawa in-person because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re excited to start our important and collaborative research together! 


Dr. Kenneth Richards is a Professor at the O'Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University. Smart Prosperity Institute caught up with Kenneth ahead of his 2020-21 term as one of the Fulbright Visiting Research Chairs in Environmental Policy.


Hi Ken, we’re excited to have you on board as one of our Fulbright Visiting Research Chairs at Smart Prosperity Institute! Can you tell us a bit about your research/academic background, and what you hope to achieve during your time with SPI?

Thanks.  I am very pleased at the prospect of spending the semester with colleagues discussing research and considering its practical implications.  The Institute provides a stimulating and encouraging environment to explore new ideas.

My background is a bit unusual, suggesting perhaps that I am either a slow learner or afflicted with an overactive curiosity.  I started in the natural sciences – botany and chemistry – and gravitated toward more applied studies in environmental engineering.  A kind and wise professor recognized my inclination for work on policy issues and convinced me to add urban and regional planning to my studies.  He encouraged me to continue my studies in either law or economics so I could be “closer to decision makers.” After watching lawyers and economists try to discuss policy issues, I decided to study both fields.

While I am at the University of Ottawa, I plan to work on a book that has been percolating for nearly two decades. 


The bulk of your research focuses on domestic and international environmental policy.  What specific topics and research areas are you looking at currently?

My current work focuses on the policy instruments that governments use to address environmental issues. There are a couple broad patterns we can observe in the field.  First, there is a tendency by researchers and practitioners to focus on individual instruments (e.g. subsidies or labeling) or groups of instruments (e.g. incentive-based instruments). Second, economists often work with formal models of instruments that abstract away from important details. In contrast, lawyers work in highly detailed, context-specific settings that tend to miss important patterns across applications.

I am working toward an approach I think of as “policy instrument systematics.” Analogous to the field of systematics in the biological sciences, this approach works to understand the relation among the instruments and what we can learn by viewing them not as a menu of individual options, but as a system of tools that have developed to meet a wide range of circumstances and needs. As with systematics in the natural sciences, an important tool in this effort is a taxonomy of policy tools.  However, where biological taxonomies are based on evolutionary history, this taxonomy is based on underlying theoretical foundations in law, economics and political science as well as the criteria we use to evaluate their efficacy. 

The descriptive work on the taxonomy is complemented by a normative, structured approach to policy instrument evaluation.  Where most studies have taken a rather ad hoc approach to evaluation of policy instruments, this systematics approach provides an evaluation rubric that draws conceptually on linear programming, specifically constrained cost minimization.  What is unique in this approach is not the individual elements, but their coherent assembly from across a broad range of research fields, including microeconomics, public finance, public administration, New Institutional Economics, legal analysis and political science.  


What are some of the “big questions” you are approaching through your latest research? Why are they important right now, at this political, economic and environmental moment?

We are facing a wide range of environmental challenges, from climate change and air pollution to habitat loss and toxic waste.  Having a systematics of policy instruments will help us better identify and evaluate the range of tools available to implement our environmental policies across a broad range of applications in a broad range of socio-political contexts.

The project should also provide insight into the policy instrument mixes that make the most sense.  Much of the discussion of “smart regulation” and policy instrument mixes takes a rather ad hoc approach to the instrument mixes.  By going back to theoretical basics, the systematics approach will provide insight on how to develop mixes.  


What are the potential policy implications of your research findings?

There are some practical implications for this research.  First, experience suggests that the policy instrument systematics approach will help a wider range of researchers and academics understand the many issues in the field and provide them a means to better communicate about those issues. 

Second, this approach will help policy makers better understand how to match policy instruments to their particular environmental policy application and their particular context.  The policy instruments that might be best to address PM2.5 in the United Kingdom might not be best when applied to the same issue in Vietnam.  The instruments that work best to control carbon dioxide emissions generally will not be as successful when applied to nonpoint source water pollution.  Context and application matter.  The systematics approach helps us to carefully consider the circumstances under which different instruments might be optimal. 


The Fulbright program is about academic exchange and cross-border collaboration and understanding. What lessons from the American experience can be applied in Canada?

To support the exposition on the policy instrument systematics, we have been developing a couple dozen case studies, drawing on a broad range of environmental applications.  Some of these cases are set in the United States and many more are from around the world.  In addition to the conceptual materials, I think these cases will be of interest to my colleagues at the University as well as to practitioners in the national and provincial government, particularly when used as a point of comparison for Canadian practices.  


What do you hope to bring back to your work at Indiana University, from your time here at SPI?

This project involves the synthesis of materials from many different disciplines.  What is interesting is how many of the leading researchers in each field are either from Canada or have ties to Canada.  I anticipate learning a great deal from my research colleagues at the University of Ottawa and beyond.  I also hope to have the opportunity to discuss the project with practitioners in the government.  


What topics or research areas excite you and captivate you moving forward?

The policy instrument systematics approach provides a natural structure for comparative international policy analysis.  I am looking forward to using it to develop comparative studies.  We have already started a comparison of policy tools used by Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States to address several environmental challenges (e.g., SO2 pollution, energy efficiency, chemical regulation, wetlands conservation).  What is interesting is that despite the three countries’ similar legal roots and level of economic development, they have employed very different policy tools to pursue similar environmental policy goals.


Click here to learn more about Smart Prosperity Institute's Fulbright Visiting Research Chairs at the University of Ottawa.