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.”