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Trying to solve the world’s greatest puzzles

5 Mins read
Josh Graff Zivin against a background image of a closeup puzzle

How Joshua Graff Zivin questions the world around him — which has led him to being one of the most highly cited researchers in the world

Long before Joshua Graff Zivin was an academic, he was driven by curiosity. 

“I am less monolithically focused on a narrow set of research questions than a typical academic,” Graff Zivin explained. “My research spans many fields, and I think that curiosity is often driven by the puzzles I see in the world.”

Graff Zivin’s work has focused on everything from energy and climate change to innovation and technology and health and international development. And his cutting-edge research on these salient topics led Graff Zivin, professor at the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy (GPS) and director of the Peter F. Cowhey Center on Global Transformation (CCGT), to be honored by Clarivate as a highly cited researcher in 2023, with only 41 scholars in economics and business making the list. This is Graff Zivin’s second time receiving the award; he was first named a highly cited researcher in 2020.

“I think the reason why the work has been impactful is that it comes from the actual world — my research questions almost never originate in the literature,” Graff Zivin said. “What I try to do is take a look at a fact in the world that is mystifying or frustrating and try to see if we can shed some light on that.”

A closer look at environmental impacts

Graff Zivin and some of his coauthors can perhaps be considered the godfathers of a subdiscipline of environmental studies — one focused on how environmental stressors like pollution or climate change impact human capital outcomes. 

“Researchers in public health and related disciplines have analyzed many of the health harms from pollution exposure. We’ve gone beyond that to say, OK, if cardiovascular function is impaired or respiratory function is impaired, how do those manifest in ways that affect decision-making or job market performance?” Graff Zivin said. “We wrote the early papers that helped spawn a large and active literature that has greatly expanded our understanding of the harms from pollution beyond those captured by purely physiological measures.”

One of his biggest upcoming projects focuses on pollution in Black and brown communities. Historically, those communities have been much more exposed to pollution than their white counterparts, though over the last 25 years, that exposure gap has closed quite a bit, Graff Zivin explained. However, air quality is still a major factor for consumers, and that air quality directly affects housing prices.

“Houses in environmentally clean neighborhoods sell for more money than in dirty neighborhoods, even if the houses are identical,” Graff Zivin said. “So we wanted to ask the question: now that we’re closing this racial disparities gap and lowering exposure to pollution, are we seeing that manifest through improvements in house prices in Black and brown communities?”

Their research found that yes, while house prices in those communities are going up, they’re going up at a much slower rate than in white neighborhoods, despite the fact that the exposure gap to pollution has narrowed. 

“The really cool thing about the paper is that we kind of develop a way to disentangle how those differences are driven by direct discrimination and systemic discrimination,” Graff Zivin said. “We offer a breakdown of how much is this difference in premium attributable to direct, outright racial animus, as opposed to the historical legacy of redlining and other systems of discrimination?”

The working paper can be found on the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) website.

Initiatives in innovation and entrepreneurship

Another of Graff Zivin’s research foci relates to innovation — specifically understanding the “science” of science and innovation.

“How do we learn the things we learn? How does discovery happen? What are the incentives that lead to certain kinds of discoveries, and how does that diffuse into the general marketplace?” Graff Zivin said. “About 15 years ago, my coauthors and I were among the first to utilize modern bibliometric and patent datasets, along with the latest econometric tools, to provide some causal empirical answers to these questions.”

As director of CCGT, this type of work ties directly to one of the major initiatives of the center: Frontiers in Science and Innovation Policy (FSIP), which is taking on the challenge of analyzing how best to reinvigorate the U.S. system of basic research and innovation in a world that is markedly different than it was even 30 years ago. 

Helmed by top science and technology policy leaders Robert Conn and Peter Cowhey, FSIP has released its report on the state of U.S. science and philanthropy. 

“We’re now looking to build that out and do more work that’s focused on the interaction of policy and technology,” Graff Zivin said. “We’re also working on breaking the report into smaller publishable units that we can put into a variety of outlets.”

Another major initiative of CCGT has been the Policy and Strategy Entrepreneurship Lab (PSE-Lab), led by GPS associate professor Elizabeth Lyons. The lab is designed to develop and support early-stage ventures with high-impact potential in the school’s areas of expertise and to complement the entrepreneurship and innovation management training offered at GPS and across campus.  

“The reason why the center is happy to sponsor it is because it is taking some of the insights from the work that Liz and I have done on incentives, innovation and entrepreneurship — as well as some work that I’ve done independently and Liz has done independently — and trying to translate it into the real world,” Graff Zivin explained. “Liz is leading the PSE-Lab to help would-be entrepreneurs traverse the chasm and become successful in these science-based areas that very much connect to the mission of GPS and CCGT.”

Graff Zivin said six firms are participating in the program and have had several months of interactions with the PSE-Lab’s advisory board as they develop their ideas — and the lab so far has been a great success. 

“It’s a bit like the agriculture extension model — we created these public institutions many years ago as a federal government, when we were a more agrarian society, and part of the contract of creating these public institutions was to create an agriculture extension,” Graff Zivin said. “The sole purpose of the ag extension was to take knowledge from the ivory tower and bring it to farmers and growers, so they could advance their business with the latest and greatest, which wouldn’t otherwise be accessible to someone who’s toiling the soil all day long. I feel like that is a version of what Liz and the PSE-Lab are doing in the entrepreneurship space, and they’re doing it in a strategic way that very closely aligns with GPS strengths and aspirations.”

Bringing curiosity to the classroom

In the fall, Graff Zivin teaches Environmental and Regulatory Economics, a course focused on understanding how government policies and programs impact the decisions of individuals and firms, aggregating up to economy-wide impacts. The class also focuses on how to design government policies to encourage favorable, ethical economic development outcomes — applicable to tackling a number of the problems the world will face in the 21st century. 

“Even though it’s an economics class, and even though we read some statistical things, my class is really about teaching folks how to think analytically about incentives in any given situation,” Graff Zivin said. “I want my students to leave my classroom being able to put themselves in others’ situations: how do I feel about this as the consumer? How do I feel about this as a firm? How do I feel about this as the regulator? Being able to think through how all of those people see the same situation is an important skill to be able to develop policies, programs, or even products.”

With every policy issue, Graff Zivin encourages his students to think through the economics and incentives behind what is driving the problems. 

“It’s a blessing and a curse — a blessing because it helps you to understand why the world looks the way it does and how you might effectively change it, but a curse because once you start seeing those, you can’t help but see them everywhere,” Graff Zivin joked. 

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Virginia Watson is the communications editor for the School of Global Policy and Strategy. She has spent her entire career in editing, writing and design, both in industry and higher education. She holds a master's in technical and professional communication from Auburn University and a B.S. in journalism with a minor in graphic design from Troy University.
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