Q&A with Shuaizhang Feng, Former C-PREE Postdoc

Thursday, Jan 28, 2021

Shuaizhang Feng is currently professor of economics and the Dean of the School of Economics, and the Dean of the Institute of Economic and Social Research at Jinan University in Guangzhou, China. From 2008-2010, he was a postdoctoral researcher in Prof. Michael Oppenheimer’s research group at C-PREE in the School of Public and International Affairs.

Dr. Feng received a Ph.D. in Economics from Cornell University in 2006. His research interests include labor economics and the Chinese economy, particularly related to human capital, income inequality, climate change, migration and the labor market.

Interview conducted by Supriya Singh, Class of 2023

What motivated you to pursue a postdoc with the Center for Policy Research on Energy and the Environment?

After completing my PhD in Economics and being back in China for two years, I felt a little bit out of touch — I wanted to try a new research direction and reconnect with the American academic community. I was thrilled to be hired to work with Michael Oppenheimer and Alan Krueger, a very well-known labor economist in my field.

The proposed project seemed very interesting: it involved studying climate change and migration. While migration is a very traditional topic in labor economics, I knew very little about climate change then. At the time, there was a lot of talk about how climate change might cause mass human migration across national borders. However, there wasn’t much serious academic research studying this – just the media and some policymakers who were worried about the prospect of mass migration due to climate change. I think that’s why Michael and Alan came together and thought it was time to study this in a rigorous manner using econometrics techniques. My contribution to the work was operationalizing the broad ideas that Michael and Alan had. I designed the model to find appropriate data and conducted empirical exercises.

During your research, did you develop any skills that are still useful or meaningful to your career or further research?

Through my research, I spent a lot of time speaking with other scientists who were doing similar work. The main thing I learned in the time I spent at C-PREE was how to communicate with scientists. As an economist and social scientist, I hadn’t really had an opportunity to work closely with natural scientists and engineers before. Working with Dr. Oppenheimer, who is a geoscientist and policy expert, gave me that opportunity. I also had an opportunity to meet other scientists and experts through the C-PREE seminars, where I learned a great deal about climate change, biodiversity, and other topics. At the end of the day, I found that there were more similarities than I had initially thought between the scientific methodology for doing research in the social sciences and in other hard sciences.

What do you think distinguished C-PREE and the School of Public and International Affairs in developing the next generation of scholars and practitioners?

A unique feature of C-PREE is how interdisciplinary the research is. For example, even in the project I did with Michael and Alan, I was able to contribute to the Center’s research as a labor economist. I had an officemate who was a science historian, and she also worked with Michael on a project about how the concept of climate change has developed in the history of science. All of the projects sounded very novel and refreshing - not limited by disciplinary boundaries.

I carried this interdisciplinary perspective with me beyond my experience at C-PREE. For example, I later conducted research on migrant children and left-behind children. In China, there has been a mass migration from rural to urban areas, to cities far away from one’s hometown. When parents migrate, they either take their children with them to cities or they leave their children behind with their grandparents. I do a lot of research on the educational challenges for these children of migrants, which requires talking to sociologists, education experts, and, most recently, psychologists. Psychologists have long been studying children’s development, using measures such as the big five personality traits to measure children’s non-cognitive skills. We use these measures and put them into an economics framework. I think interdisciplinary research is really important if you want to find solutions to real-life problems.

Within economics, do you think there are certain skills that are important for students to learn who work in the interface between environmental science, policy, and economics?

Economics is a study of incentives and how people respond to those incentives, so I think it’s very important, when talking about the effects of climate change and various policies, to consider people’s choices in response to those changes and policies. We cannot assume that process is mechanical; economists have an advantage in adding that perspective into interdisciplinary research projects. For example, when studying people’s migration responses to climate change, one needs to also understand people’s other adaptation choices, including switching from agriculture to service or industry jobs, and moving from rural to urban areas, those kinds of things. I think it is important to correctly model people’s choices under constraints when doing economics-related policy research.

In terms of future research, is there a particular topic that you see as an exciting new area to study?

I think it is important to study the incentives and interactions of government, people, and physical processes or the interplay of different agents and stakeholders. Having worked in both China and the US, I have realized that the contexts of countries can be quite different, with their unique institutions. To gain any deeper insights into policy recommendations, you first need to understand the background, how things work, what the constraints are that people face, and what they think in order to understand their behavior. Once you incorporate those considerations, the underlying mechanisms and forces across places are quite similar. With policy, we need to think more broadly than a single discipline to understand these interconnections.