Bob Evenson: An economist with heart

Recently I learned one of my dear colleagues, Bob Evenson from Yale University, passed away. Bob grew up on a farm in the Minnesota and got his PhD at the University of Chicago. He became a leading development economist, and taught for more than 30 years mostly at Yale.

My early impressions, as a student in Israel and in Berkeley, was that Chicago economics and development were an oxymoron. Chicago economists were supposed to be free-market, cold-hearted creatures that only cared about efficiency. Bob was actually the opposite of this stereotype: he really cared about people, and no matter who you were, he would listen to you. He cared about solving real problems and was particularly proud of his contribution to the development of agricultural research in Brazil and the emergence of EMBRAPA as a leading research institution of the world.

After knowing Bob, I realized that the Chicago economists were not that bad. Actually, the greatest development economist ever is probably Nobel laureate Theodore Schultz (he introduced the idea of human capital), who served as Chairman of Chicago Economics; and the great Vernon Ruttan (who popularized the theory of induced innovation) was a Chicago graduate, among many others. I have learned that many of the most creative contributions in development, both economic and policy, came from the Chicago School, which proves that you need multiple perspectives to address major problems.

Bob produced an incredibly influential paper (with Yoav Kislev) that developed a practical economic framework to quantitatively understand investments in research. Research is basically a ‘search’ for outcomes that perform better. The output of research can be measured by improvement in terms of performance but it is also subject to variability. Evenson’s work with Kislev developed a way to compute the distribution of research efforts, and to investigate how extra investment in research can improve outcomes and reduce uncertainty about them.

evensonThis approach justifies allocation of resources towards research. Firms, and even governments, view research like any other economic activity and weigh benefit and cost to determine investments in research. Evenson suggested that if extra social funding of research provides higher returns than other activities, this means that society under invests in research. Bob was one of the major contributors in documenting the high rate of return for different lines of agricultural research, showing that public research in agricultural, especially in developing countries is extremely valuable, making a case for increased investment and improved design of public research. His work in the Brazilian government in agencies like Rockefeller and Gates Foundation was crucial in directing research towards food production, which has saved lives.

Bob was an excellent scholar but he was also an intellectual leader. He was an intuitive leader that would recognize new direction for research and worked very hard to make sure that they will be followed. While he was one of the biggest advocates for public investment in agricultural research, he recognized that to be effective, public-private partnerships were important to induce private investment in research.

To induce private investment in agricultural research, it was important to introduce intellectual property on genetic material. He inspired a lot of researchers on how to design and manage intellectual property in agriculture to make sure that it is not abused. He also realized the potential of genetic engineering in agriculture and some of the likely controversy they may cause and the need for global cooperation for research on this topic.

Together with Vittorio Santaniello he organized a conference in Rome in 1998 on the economics of biotechnology and biodiversity, which lead to the establishment of the International Consortium of Agricultural Biotechnology Research that has been meeting mostly in Ravello, Italy. This has become an international forum to discuss economics and policy challenges as global society increasingly relies on biological based technology.

I was privileged to collaborate with Bob in this consortium and was amazed at his capacity to vision new areas of research, to inspire and finance participation from developing countries, and produce books and other publications that provide a base for sound policy discussion. While he maintained academic excellence, the Ravello conference was a meeting of friends and Bob and his wife Judy made everyone feel welcome. It was an incredible achievement to establish an island of collaboration and reason in the midst of controversy.
Bob’s departing is a loss to his friends, family and colleagues. He was one of these rare individuals that made a difference in the lives of people around the world and blazed a path that many will follow.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.