Asad Islam has been the new director of Centre for Development Economics and Sustainability (CDES) for just a few months. In this new position, he hopes to improve the impact of the research on real world problems and better translate theoretical research into policy. The new job is not without challenges.
“I want to work on issues that affect people’s lives and this position will give me the opportunity to work and engage with the outside world as well as communicating our research to have a stronger impact on the real world," he says.
"The plan is to generate interest in terms of engaging with policy makers, Non-Governmental Organisations and government to translate research into action and make a difference in the lives of poor people of the world.”
CDES is set to hire two research fellows as well as another senior position in the New Year. The senior position will focus on policy and external engagement. The plan is to expand even more with the research funds from the Faculty to increase the research capacity. External funding will also be hugely important in growing the CDES. This will be one of Asad’s greatest challenges.
“I have been successful in applying for external grants so far and that’s part of the reason I got this job. But in this current climate when funding for foreign aid has been cut down by all major developed countries, the research funding has also been cut in this area," he says.
"I have to seek funding from outside Australia and I’m encouraging my colleagues to do the same. To sustain our presence we need funds as the faculty can’t finance us indefinitely.”
Another major challenge is engaging with policymakers to push for change. Asad hopes growing the centre into a more established platform within the field and building trust with policy makers will be a long-term, rewarding process.
“We want to help translate advanced rigorous research into policy level research. We want to have a core capacity to attract more research funding and we also want to engage with other academics. We have expertise working in field experiments and we want to strengthen this branch," he says.
"At the same time development economics is broader than that and we want to embrace theory work that academics may want to test in the field. We do surveys and experiments but are open to any ideas related to poverty, inequality and economic growth in developing countries.
"I’m hoping colleagues in EBS, Economics and other departments will find it more useful to collaborate with us as I believe they can also reap benefits from collaborations."
What does getting this job mean to you personally?
“It is a humbling experience and I am very grateful. At the same time, it’s challenging. I come from a rural area in Bangladesh where there was a lot of poverty and inequality. I am emotionally attached to this job. I am committed to make changes so I hope this new role will allow me to make some changes in the lives of the people who need it. If a child grows up with more opportunities because of an intervention we did or a policy change, then she can look after the parents, the community and make changes in the way my parents did for me.”
The CDES started in 2015 with Sisira Jayasuriya as its inaugural Director. He stepped down earlier this year. Asad is very recognisant of his work and support.
“Sisira has done an exceptional job. He brought people together under one umbrella working as a group, making CDES present in many areas," he says.
"We want to continue and expand what he has started. He is my mentor and I am very glad he will remain in the centre. I hope we will continue to have more engaging discussions and his wide network help us get more external grants.”
Weijia Li loves Economics for the combination of feeling useful to society in general and using very formal and rigorous tools.
“When I first started to study Economics I found everything so clean and clearly defined. All the policy recommendations are very clear and it gives you precise conditions when you should and should not do something. I love that.”
Initially Weijia planned to do his PhD in Public Finance, a field that helps you design social insurance, unemployment insurance and optimal taxation but when he actually began his research, he discovered new questions that intrigued him more.
“It’s not only about how people behave but about how society should be. This sort of works in developed countries. The recommendations for the optimal taxation literature is quite similar to the real taxation system in developed countries like the US and Europe. But, if you look at developing countries it’s totally opposite. They are doing exactly the opposite to the recommendations of optimal taxation theory.”
The million-dollar question of why this was happening is what set him on his research path in Political Economy, mostly in developing countries.
“The question that interests me most is how do we find a good government to implement optimal social policy and to be accountable to its’ citizens.”
Now he’s working on several topics, one of which is a project focusing on the political cost of corruption and another on collective actions and revolutionary entrepreneurs. A third project, with Nathan Lane, is on information technology, business concentration and the influence on consumers.
Weijia is originally from a province outside of Shanghai. He did his undergraduate studies at Tsinghua University in Beijing and his PhD at UC Berkeley outside San Francisco. He is the only person in his entire family to live outside of China.
“My parents miss me of course but they believe working in an English-speaking country is very good for career reasons and that Australia is such a happy country.”
Once Weijia was on the job market he applied to a few universities in the US but one of the advantages to him of Monash is that it’s located in a big city and that it’s relatively close to China. He frequently returns to attend conferences.
“It’s also clear that the department is on an upward trend. There are many great people, like Nathan Lane and Paul Raschky for me to work with here. The Economic History group here is doing extremely vibrant, new, and cutting-edge research. That’s exciting for me as it’s quite hard for me as a Political Economist to find a good fit.”
And contrary to the opinion of many others, he finds housing in Melbourne very affordable.
“When you’ve lived in the San Francisco area everywhere else is so cheap. And Melbourne is just awesome, doesn’t everyone say that?”
He also doesn’t understand why people complain about the Melbourne winter.
“What, they think this is cold? Beijing is as cold as Moscow in the winter, so this is nothing,” he says.
When he’s not at work Weijia likes swimming and enjoys listening to live classical music, something he thinks Melbourne is great at providing too. His dream is to one day soon listen to a concert in the Sydney Opera house.
He is also an avid reader of philosophy and literature. Immanuel Kant is his favourite philosopher.
“Kant’s idea that you need both concept and intuition to perceive anything is so powerful. He says ‘thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind’ and that is very meaningful to my research.”
Among his favourite literary authors are Russian and German classics such as Leo Tolstoy and Thomas Mann. A Chinese classic he recommends which has not lost its true character in the English translation is “Dream of Red Chamber” which is the most important book in the Chinese literature tradition.
“The translation is fantastic but the problem is it still sounds like Jane Austen which is totally not the case in the original. You have to suffer for the first five chapters but then it turns into pure magic.”
Nathan Lane grew up working class in diverse areas across Florida. His mum was a Venezuelan immigrant to the US and she was involved in labour activism and the migrant workers’ struggle in the US. Early on when Nathan was a child, she would bring him along to migrant rallies and take him with her into the fields.
“There are many people poorer than me, who don’t look like me, why is that? Economics seemed to be the glue that was under-girding all of that which drew me to it,” he says.
Nathan dropped out of traditional High School and an academic career was never obvious to him. He travelled the world and started university late. Once he did start, he gravitated towards more philosophical economics departments.
Finally, he chose Amherst Massachusetts for his undergraduate studies and moved on to New York for his Master’s degree in Statistics at Colombia University. His idea was doing a PhD in Political Science but then as he calls it “jumped ship” and completed his PhD in Economics at Stockholm University and Harvard.
“Economics has a structured, disciplined way of saying things about the social world. It also has this “scientific-ness”, for better or worse, that for some reason has a cache with people in power. That drew me to it. For political scientists and sociologists, for some reason, there is a discount with what they say. I think it’s ridiculous but I gravitate towards Economics because it has this cultural capital in so far as people in power listen to you.“
Nathan describes his research as being somewhere in the intersection between Political Economy and Applied Empirics. By using new types of data and methods, he approaches big questions in Political Economy. He is interested in using alternative, unconventional sources of data such as the economic meaning that can be extracted from a bird’s eye satellite photo of an economy.
One current project involves trying to measure how digitised states are across democracies and autocracies in the world by measuring their internet footprint using IP data.
“We want to look at how digital technology has transformed the ability of the state to extract information from people. The US and China would be examples of that process.”
Another research topic is part of the digital state project, which investigates how digitalisation and technology is rapidly transforming what states do, and how they behave. Using CIA yearbooks, the research team tracked every state entity and found their IP address in order to map the extent to which these sources are changing with geopolitics.
Social interaction is a very important part of research for Nathan. He’s happy to be at Monash, but wants to keep improving the culture of research.
Part of this project has meant trying to build more a research community within his field. SoDa Lab is a result of that endeavour. The research laboratory is an interdisciplinary group of researchers from the departments of Econometrics, Computer Science, Economics and Engineering who are all interested in applying new tools from machine learning and data science to answer social science questions. It has grown exponentially in a short time from 4 to 31 members.
“I knew machine learning was huge at Monash and we were incorporating it into Economics so when I got here I thought there’s a comparative advantage. Let’s build a lab around it where we can be experimental and playful. The good thing at Monash is we were not constrained in creating it.” SoDa has found that the new dean shares in the lab’s vision.
Nathan is also very happy with the new scholars recently recruited by the department and is looking forward to improved mentorship and engagement.
“It was a bit of a culture shock coming here I guess. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, it was so dense and productive. But it’s changing rapidly here so that’s positive.”
Although Nathan worried about being cut off from the world, Melbourne is still the favourite place in the world where he has lived so far.
“It’s easy and diverse and people are so nice. I like being in diverse places because everyone is mixed and from somewhere else so I don’t feel out of place.” His family is split between the US and Europe and used to also be in Latin America before the current distressing situation in Venezuela.
“Melbourne has everything I like about a European city, or an American city but no one is going to stab you.”
Even though setting up SoDaLab has taken “an insane amount of time”, he still finds moments for other things. He finds balance with Buddhist Samatha meditation and Melbourne’s restaurant culture.
“I meditate a lot and eat out. That’s what I do, meditation and restaurants. Restaurants are awesome here, right?”
Xiaojian Zhao has not been long in Australia when we meet. His wife and son have since also followed him from Hong Kong. He has just bought a house from a colleague and is looking forward to the excellent research environment at Monash and the relaxing life of Melbourne.
“My son is 5 years old this year so it is the right moment to decide a place for him to grow up. For the family it is better to stay in one place and this is the most liveable city in the world, right?" He laughs.
“My wife likes it very much here too. She has supported our move to Australia and now we are looking for a school for our son.”
Xiaojian is originally from Tianjin in China. He completed his undergraduate degree in information management and information system in Jinan University at Guangzhou and went on to work in the Tencent company as a software programmer. However, he soon became bored and thought it would be a good idea to study abroad.
“At school I was intrigued by maths and physics and I never really planned to do Economics. But at the same time I was driven by my interests in rock n roll music; there are many complex social problems and interesting aspects of human nature I wanted to understand.”
So he set off on his path by doing a Masters in Politics and Economics at Freiburg University and his PhD in Economics at the University of Mannheim, in Germany. During this period, he became obsessed with Microeconomic theory, as it looked like a natural mix of his seemingly unrelated two parts of interests, maths and society.
“It explains complicated human behaviour by explicitly modelling preference and choice behaviour and linking it to utility representation. It uses game theory to model complex social interaction to capture not only economic problems but also problems in law, politics, finance, biology, psychology, sociology and even linguistics. It’s an amazing tool, very exciting!"
Following his years in Germany, he was assistant professor, first at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and for the last two years at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (Shenzhen).
Why did you choose to come to Monash?
“The research environment in my field is excellent at Monash. I do both theory and experiment, including contract theory with application to IO and finance and here the department is very strong. I am also interested in behavioural and experimental economics and more than ten people here are doing experiments. In my field of study, it’s definitely one of the best places in the world for me.”
Xiaojian’s research focuses on the border between psychology and economics. At the moment he’s particularly working on economics of motivated cognition/beliefs, which is part of but beyond behavioural economics.
“Often behavioural economists assume certain behavioural biases but I am more interested in the underlying rationale of the behavioural biases – why people are biased. In what I do, I don’t take them as given but I try to explain them. We use standard methodology such as game theory and economic experiments but analyse problems in cognitive psychology. For example, I build games in which an individual plays with himself, and tries to understand why and how the current self manipulates the memory, or gives some commitment power to the future self. So I split the individual in to several selves and let them play games. Motivated cognition is a quite interdisciplinary field!”
While he studied in Germany languages fascinated him. He experienced the cultural difference between German and Chinese so it became natural to ask why.
“For example in English when we speak about marriage for instance, there is only one verb and the object of marriage changes. In Chinese there are different verbs for marriage depending on who you marry, if a male marries a female it’s one word “Qu”, if a female marries a male it’s one word “Jia”, if the lady is dominant in the relation it’s another word “Dao Cha Men” and so on.”
His enthusiasm for languages shows in the other main topic of his research. He uses artificial code in a lab setting and people communicate only by using symbols that he has set up and then the participants try to communicate.
“In the lab we can do a clean design and manipulate certain factors and change one factor of the treatment keeping all the others the same to see if one factor is a driving force to the emergence of a certain language property or not. There is a huge controversial topic in linguistics where people think if you are Chinese maybe your way of looking at the world is different from an English speaker. We don’t know if they have a causality or not. This is very tricky to test in the real world but in a lab you can control certain environments and we can see how this affects thinking.”
When he’s not working Xiaojian enjoys martial arts, especially boxing. Recently he has also tried grappling techniques such as No-Gi BJJ which he wants to keep doing. Busy days ahead for this new colleague as his wife and son arrive from Hong Kong. He has just bought a house from a colleague who is moving to something bigger down the road.
“I was really lucky, the house is wonderful and also I will still have a really nice neighbour.”
Meet your new colleagues
St Kilda boy returns home
“I’m still a St Kilda supporter.” It’s one of the first things he says. And that’s where he grew up, just down the road from his current Caulfield office. Isaac Gross is Melburnian born and bred. Both his parents went to Monash and are still telling stories of the Menzies building and what it was like back in the 1970s.
Contrary to his parents, Isaac – or Zac as most people know him – undertook his undergraduate studies at Melbourne University followed by a stint in Sydney working for the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA).
All through his school years he was more interested in science than in economics. But with time he found that physics and economics used the same method, then applied it to different areas. And he found it more interesting to apply the methods to people and behaviour, rather than atoms and particles.
Studying macroeconomics is what made him passionate about economic policy. This semester he’s teaching Applied Issues in Macroeconomic policy at Clayton, a very hands-on course for people interested in going to work for the Treasury or the RBA.
In 2013 he moved to University of Oxford to complete his Masters degree and DPhil, only to return five years later. While there were possibilities to stay in the UK or go to the US, in the end Australia won him back.
“My partner is also from Melbourne and I convinced her to move overseas in the first place so the prospect of coming back was just too good to pass up. It’s been great to have an Australian summer again. The department is good, as is the location,” he says.
Zac’s research specialises in the housing market and how buying a house affects households when it comes to expenditure and other household goods.
“Unsurprisingly the amount of smashed avocado you can buy decreases when you buy a house. And I look at how fiscal policies affect the house buyers, the housing market and household spending. Will people buy more or less avocados?”.
He finds that policies aimed at increasing homeownership, such as first home owner grants, can actually slow the economy as they encourage households to save rather than spend their income.
His research hasn’t so far been able to afford him a house of his own. So he’s still renting and looking forward to housing prices falling further while eating more smashed avo.
What do you think about the current housing market?
“While housing prices have fallen quite a bit in the current market the economy as a whole is still fairly stable and unemployment is fairly low at 5 percent. There’s not much to worry about at the moment. This is not a bubble that is going bust,” he says.
”If the prices fall another 10 percent then we’d be concerned but policy makers are actively keeping an eye on it – in fact there are early signs the slump may be over already, with prices rising in the past couple of months. Given that we’ve had a steady climb over the last few years a slight downturn is not the end of the world.”
He would like to see a shift in policy from favouring investors to focusing on first-time home buyers. He believes winding back negative gearing or just targeting it at new builds alone would be a good idea and facilitating for people to be able to afford their first own home.
“The price-income ratio has increased a lot since the 80s and 90s. It makes sense to enable people to buy a house, especially lower income earners. If we are looking at a situation where the bottom half of the income percentile are never able to buy, I think it’s not ideal.”
When Zac is not focused on his research he plays mixed netball at the Caulfield gym and enjoys to travel. Most weekends you’ll find him in his kitchen baking sourdough bread.
“It takes a bit of time but you can put all sorts of good things in there, olives, sundried tomatoes. I like to experiment. It’s always great to make something from scratch.”
Zac’s top three things to do in Melbourne:
- St Kilda beach and Acland Street.
- Walking along the Yarra, especially Southbank.
- Restaurants in the North in areas such as Fitzroy and Collingwood.
Wayne Geerling spent several years as a celebrated lecturer at La Trobe University before he left Melbourne for America in July 2012. He was looking for a bigger challenge and for a larger, more vibrant economics education community. He spent four years at Pennsylvania State University and two years at the University of Arizona.
“It was a great learning experience working in departments with large teaching specialist programs. The economics department at Penn State and the University of Arizona each had 10-12 teaching specialists,” Wayne says.
“I worked alongside some of the best teaching specialists in the world. Being exposed to different teaching styles in a new environment was exactly what I needed at that point in my career.
“I had been a big fish in a small pond at La Trobe University. During the six years I spent in America, I proved I could compete at the highest level - in a much larger, deeper pond. By the time I left America, I had established a reputation as an internationally renowned teaching specialist. I have been working on a number of economics education projects with academics from a dozen American universities: everything from books to journal articles, through to working as an associate editor, to creating websites to help teach economics.”
With an ageing mum, he always thought he would return, but the timing was far from certain. On a random research visit to Monash in July 2017, he found the Department was creating a role that really suited him and subsequently offered him the job.
“There was no major planning involved. But when a Group of Eight university approaches you, you know it is time to go back.”
Wayne has two main research focuses: economics education and economic history. Economics education is a sub-discipline of teaching and learning which looks at how we teach economics. In a career spanning almost 15 years, he has taught nearly 30,000 students at four universities and won department, faculty, university and national teaching awards. Wayne has developed a reputation for being innovative and interactive in teaching large core classes.
In economic history, he is particularly fascinated by the Nazi period and his projects cover resistance in the Third Reich: people who committed treason and high treason and were arraigned before the People’s Court.
“Nazi court records from the period 1933-1945 are a goldmine for any economist interested in the economics of crime.”
His focus on both economics and history is obvious when you learn more about his background.
Wayne started his undergraduate studies with a Bachelor of Economics at La Trobe University but didn’t really enjoy the first two years of study. Not until he took a modern European history elective outside economics in his third year did this change.
“The lecturer was Bill Murray. He was an old Scottish guy who loved the French Revolution. He would lecture in both English and French. Bill was so passionate about teaching; he would relive the events of the French Revolution with incredible emotion and would often cry. It was weird, but incredibly inspiring. He truly cared about teaching. That has never left me,” he says.
Wayne went on to study more history and nowadays is deeply engaged in both economics and modern history, both of which help shape his teaching style. He sees himself as a solid researcher but an even better teacher.
“Teaching large classes is my comparative advantage. Always has been; I thrive in the environment of speaking in front of a large audience. The large core classes are the lifeblood of any department. It’s more common these days for a department to put their most dynamic teachers in here”, says Wayne.
When Wayne is not working, he has a keen interest in reading, mostly literature and books about the Second World War. He also likes to travel, play chess, watch sports like cricket and soccer and listen to music.
Given his fondness for history, his choice of favourite authors come as little surprise: Fyodor Dostoyevsky, George Orwell and Graham Greene.
“I prefer Russian, German and some English authors from the late 19th and early 20th century. I love reading.”
New colleague: Claudio Labanca
Claudio Labanca comes from a large family in a small town in Southern Italy. He loves the food, sports – and coffee in Melbourne. The Monash department of Economics has impressed him with its plentiful resources and low teaching load.
Originally from Lagonegro, a small town in the Basilicata region in Southern Italy, just a couple of hours from Naples, Claudio Labanca has left his large family behind. It has been ten years since he last lived in Italy and he has already been at Monash for 18 months. Every summer he returns to his hometown Lagonegro to visit his 90-year old grandmother, among others.
“I love it because the town is high on a mountain, 600 metres above sea level, and it drops straight into the Mediterranean Sea so you can get to the beach in 20 minutes. You escape all the heat of the seaside, so we sleep well. Yet we still go to the beach with my whole family in the mornings in summer and then come back home for lunch,” he says.
Claudio moved from Lagonegro to Milano in Northern Italy to study at Bocconi University. He stayed for undergraduate studies and his Master’s degree. During this phase, he got in touch with Professor Tito Boeri who is a labour economist at Bocconi. Since then he focuses on labour and public economics research, especially taxation on labour income.
“I’m trying to understand why workers don’t change their hours that much even when the tax rate changes. One explanation is that they might not be able to as they work with other people so there are coordination issues within the same firm. This leaves the government’s tax policy ineffective,” he explains.
After completing his Master’s degree, Claudio left Italy and worked first for the Ministry of Finance in the Netherlands and then for the European Central bank in Germany before deciding to do a PhD at UC San Diego.
“I really suffered from the weather in Northern Europe so when I decided to do a PhD and I knew it would be tough I applied where I knew the weather would be good so at least I didn’t have to worry about that.”
The workload at UCSD first came as a shock as he hadn’t taken any of the PhD classes at Bocconi as it was not his initial intention to go into research.
“It was very tough to catch up and I really didn’t know if I was going to stay. But once we got to research it was the best time of my life.”
Monash’s Department of Economics is his first appointment since the completion of his PhD. Claudio was impressed by the generosity of the research budget at Monash as well as the low teaching load and the numerous possibilities to run workshops and invite guests. It also helped that it was easier for his partner to work in Australia compared to the US.
Finally, there are many reasons why he is pleased they chose to come and live in Melbourne.
“The food is great and I drink a lot of coffee. Every Saturday I wake up and go to the Prahran Market where I sip coffee and read the newspaper at the local coffee shop for an hour. Then I do my grocery shopping. This is something I enjoy a lot, and wasn’t able to do as much in San Diego where everything was much more standardized and food was not as good.”
Otherwise, he enjoys swimming and cycling and these days he is very busy planning for his wedding in Sicily in August.
“I’m going back in June to try clothes and shoes with one uncle and then there’s another uncle who’s a wine producer so I’ll be choosing the right wine for the event with him. So the wedding’s very much a family business,” he says.