Nicholas Burger Ph.D. `08 is at the forefront of solving world problems at RAND.
Nicholas Burger Ph.D.`08 is a senior economist at the RAND Corporation and director of RAND's Washington office. He is also a professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School. His work focuses on environmental economics and international development, including energy and climate change. He was a lead author on the Fourth Assessment Report produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. At RAND, Burger has co-authored a report on designing viable climate change policies and estimated the costs of renewable energy. He recently completed a three-year randomized control trial to evaluate a farmer training program in China that is designed to reduce negative environmental impacts of farming. He was part of a team that contributed analysis to the first Quadrennial Energy Review through the Department of Energy.
Burger's other international development work includes studying constraints to growth of the private health sector in sub-Saharan Africa and evaluating one of Indonesia's major community-driven development anti-poverty programs. He led a team that assessed ways to relax constraints to growth for small and medium sized enterprises in Indonesia, and he recently completed an analysis of innovative affordable housing models in India.
Burger received his Ph.D. in economics from the University of California, Santa Barbara. We are proud to present this amazing Gaucho’s story as our December 2019 Alumni Spotlight!
What drew you to choose UCSB for your graduate studies?
I was looking for a graduate program—initially a Masters program, then PhD—that combined high-quality teaching and research with real world applications. The Bren School’s Masters in Environmental Science and Management offered the right mix for me. I then transitioned to a PhD in the NSF-funded Economics and Environmental Science (EES) program, jointly run by the Bren School and the Economics Department, where I could continue the combination of analysis and policy in a more research-focused environment. I also liked that the Bren School and its building (Bren Hall) really seemed to ‘walk the talk’ of the science and the principles behind the school.
What was your research focus? What was it like working with your mentors and colleagues at your department?
The EES program meant I received integrated training in economics and environmental science. My particular environmental science focus was in the area of climate science, and through the Econ department I focused on environmental economics and behavioral/experimental economics. I was closest—figuratively and literally—to my EES PhD colleagues, many of whom had office spaces in the Bren School. The EES program selected students that had a breadth of experience and a strong interest in multidisciplinary approaches to research, and we become a close-knit group. Similarly, we were quite close to our environmental economics faculty at Bren and in the Econ department, and most of us built strong connections with other scientists and other economists. It was a supportive and rewarding environment for a PhD student.
When did you first realize your fascination for your chosen discipline?
My initial interest in environmental economics grew out of my time studying in Ghana as an undergraduate student at the University of Southern California. I spent six months there, and when I returned to USC I wanted to delve deeper into topics—like rural electrification—that seemed like challenges and opportunities in Ghana. That interest persisted and drove me to environmental economics for graduate school, and at UCSB I explored a range of research topics in the climate and energy space, which I trace back to my time at USC.
What did you enjoy most as a student at UCSB?
I really grew to love the feeling of community—among graduate students, among faculty, and beyond the university. The Bren School in particular engendered a strong sense of community, since it welcomed individuals that simultaneously had diverse-yet-related interests. Ecologists, geographers, biologists, economists, and others—we were all interested in the environment, but we each came at it from our own perspective and with our own methods. Having the large, energetic Masters program cohorts around also drew the more isolated PhD students out of our shells, which was great. Looking beyond the campus, there were any number of broader communities—academic and non-academic—to engage with, making Santa Barbara feel like a college town and also not a college town, in the best sense possible.
You have had a fascinating career in academia and in the nonprofit world. What is it like for you at your current position at the RAND Corporation? What do you love about your work?
I came to RAND as a researcher, an environmental economist, and that’s certainly still a core part of my identity today. At the same time, I’ve had the good fortune to work on a wide range of research projects, some far afield from environmental econ, and to hold a series of positions here at RAND that have allowed me to continue to learn and grow over the years. Today I spend about half may time doing research and the other half directing RAND’s Washington Office. Those roles involve wildly different responsibilities, and that gets to one of the things I love most about RAND: it’s an organization populated by terrific people that provides an immense range of opportunities to do what you love and to learn to love new things.
At this point in your life, what is the most important advice you can give to someone who hopes to succeed in your chosen discipline/career path?
Keep your options open. I went straight from school to school to school, with no gaps, which meant I came out of my PhD with little real-world experience to inform my academic and career choices. While in graduate school—and despite my terrific experience with the Bren School—I elected to get my PhD in economics, since I thought it would be a more flexible degree when it came time to get a job. I think that was the right choice for me. I was fortunate to have an advisor who was supportive of my desire to pursue a job outside of academia. Not everyone has such open-minded advisors, so if you can find one, take advantage. I also chose to go to a research-focused organization where, if I chose to do so, I could chart a path back to academic life or further afield into government. I gravitated toward Washington, DC in large part because my wife, also a PhD graduate, and I wanted the option to change jobs or even careers without feeling like we needed to pick up and move each time. Although I haven’t always chosen to exercise all of these options, I believe having options has been important to getting where I am today.
What drives you? (What or who inspire you to do what you do each day?)
As an environmental economist, a big theme of my time at UCSB was public goods. Public goods are all around us—our parks and community resources, our clean water and air—but, by nature, as individuals we tend to underinvest in them. I came to RAND in part because I wanted to be at an organization that cares about public goods, both on a large and small scale. The work that we do at RAND to improve public policy decision making is about expanding knowledge and helping others apply that knowledge to improve wellbeing. That’s really about investing in public goods. At an individual level, RAND is a place where I feel like I can contribute to public goods within the organization and those contributions will be rewarded. For me, it comes down to being at a place that has a mission that I feel aligned with.