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Regents' Professor makes real-world difference

February 24, 2011

This article is part of a series that looks at ASU's 2010 Regents' Professors and President's Professors.

Helping to solve real-world problems: That’s the goal of research from Professor V. Kerry Smith, a pioneer in the increasingly important field of environmental economics. Most environmental problems are fair game – whether reducing air pollution, cleaning up hazardous waste sites, or helping to restructure water price rates to achieve greater conservation. Each offers opportunities for economists to make a difference.

Smith easily is one of the most highly regarded professors in this burgeoning field. Newly named a 2010 ASU Regents’ Professor, Smith is all about trying to make a difference both inside and outside academia.

“When people meet me on an airplane or at an event, they usually admit economics was their least favorite subject in school and that it must be boring to be an economist,” says Smith, who teaches in the W. P. Carey School of Business. “But when I explain I deal with issues like controlling pollution at a lower cost, or measuring the economic value of protecting unique natural environments, such as the Grand Canyon, they say they didn’t realize those issues involved economics.”

Out of about 50,000 Ph.D. economists worldwide, less than 5 percent specialize in problems associated with the environment. However, that’s changing. Smith says he sees more job opportunities each year in the field. He makes sure students in his classes learn how to examine real issues. For example, he’s about to give his newest undergraduates an exercise in which he shows them the actual air-pollution hot spots in the Phoenix area, along with associated data, and asks them to use economics to propose how to make the situation better.

Since the 1970s, Smith has done consulting for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). There, he began to analyze policy questions, instead of working to refine theoretical economic models. His mentor taught him to think less about what economists deemed important and more about the problems society and people face.

“Listening is the key,” he says. “I try to teach my students to listen to people’s problems and think about how to solve them.”

For example, Smith is currently working with the EPA on a new set of materials to help decide which sites and processes are the best suited for land cleanups to remove hazardous substances and allow productive reuse of the land. In another study, he is considering how air pollution affects the health of older adults, and in turn, the time demands placed on their adult children as caregivers.

In an additional policy area, Smith says, “Most of our congressional representatives believe climate legislation is out of reach for the foreseeable future; industry cannot afford it. However, if we reconsider how conventional pollutants are regulated, providing incentives to retire the old coal plants faster, then the results may go a long way toward reducing carbon dioxide and achieving greater improvements in controlling particulate matter that will lower health care costs.”

Arthur Blakemore, chair of the Department of Economics at the W. P. Carey School of Business, notes that there are only 70 economists in the National Academy of Sciences, and only four are environmental economists. One is Kerry Smith.

“Smith was one of the first researchers contacted by the prestigious National Bureau of Economic Research as an area leader for environmental economics when the bureau added the field to its conferences, workshops and working papers,” Blakemore says. “The breadth of his research contributions is unparalleled. No one else has contributed so importantly to so many areas in environmental economics. He has also raised more than $5.5 million for sponsored research, a huge number by the standards of economics in which grants typically have no equipment, labs or other large costs.”

Robert Mittelstaedt, dean of the W. P. Carey School of Business, says Smith has published more than 200 articles and 15 books, and holds more than 2,000 citations to his body of work.

“Most famously, his work on the valuation of goods like air and water are ‘must reads’ for graduate programs globally,” Mittelstaedt says. “His 2004 election to the National Academy of Sciences is a testament to his global stature, as was his selection as a Guggenheim Foundation Fellow in the 1970s, his Distinguished Service Award in 1989 from the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists, and his 2002 election as a Fellow of the American Agricultural Economics Association. He also serves as editor or associate editor of five journals in his field and sits on four editorial review boards.”

Smith says he wants people to appreciate that Arizona State University is a unique educational institution. University leaders encourage faculty to try to make a real-world difference through a sustained commitment to genuine collaborative research between the sciences and social sciences.

In January, with the support of ASU, Smith kicked off a new program that brings about a half-dozen of the best economics doctorate students from the top domestic and international institutions to ASU to study environmental economics in a way that emphasizes links between natural sciences and sustainability.

When asked about other interests, Smith simply says: “My family is my primary hobby. Other than that, I’m pretty dull.”