Philosophy

Outlook:

You can summarize my perspective on the human condition as:

We have labile values, unstable objectives, incomplete knowledge and make decisions less rationally than we would like to believe. 

I do not have an agenda other than to understand how we come to make decisions and how we can try to improve the decisions that are made.  I do not subscribe to any particular dogma other than evidence-based research and action.

The research projects our group are engaged with tend to be at the intersection of energy-environment-health and public policy. These problems often have to be tackled using a broad understanding of the context of the issue and feasible solutions for dealing with them. This broader perspective, drawing in key information about technical and social aspects of each problem is called integrated assessment. 

Each research project is selected to be something my collaborators and I are passionate about. The aim of these projects is to help us develop the skills needed to understand and address complex public policy challenges and to negotiate an intellectually and personally rewarding path to a degree.

My formal training was in physics, mathematics and computer science. I have been fortunate in picking up a passing understanding of how problems are framed and explored in other disciplines, but cannot claim expertise in any.  This may not be that much of a handicap.  

As far as I can see, real world public policy problems do not observe disciplinary boundaries. I don’t think our problems today are fundamentally different to problems faced by earlier generations. We tend to think every new situation is unique and because of that fallacy tend to dismiss lessons of history. I try to be pragmatic, see similarities, use actual evidence and apply lessons from analogues whenever possible.

However, I would be the first to note that an interdisciplinary approach to a Masters or PhD or tenure is the harder path to follow.  The risks of a path following a narrow, well-defined disciplinary thesis are far lower. Your supervisor would be an expert in the topic area. The literature you need to cover would be easy to track down. The methods would already be well developed and your work would add another piece of masonry to the proud edifice of knowledge already assembled.  In interdisciplinary research none of the above are true and your research often ends up culminating in a tent on a wet field with a distant view of two or more magnificent castles on the horizon.  IA requires a pioneering spirit.

I am contacted by hundreds of students each year inquiring about opportunities to complete their graduate studies at UBC in our group. I try to collaborate with 6-8 students at any one time. Given graduation rates, I can usually invite one or two students to join our group in any given year.  Students wishing to join our group need to contact me well in advance of the application deadline. This gives us time to learn a little more about one another and explore areas of mutual interest.  Successful research is based on shared curiosity and good communication. So, please consider contacting me well in advance of our application deadline. I will always give the advantage to applicants I have come to know through earlier communications and meetings.

Current research:

We are working on a number of topics, most related to development of more effective public policy:

  • How can we develop a more integrated approach to mitigation and adaptation?  Currently, many ghg mitigation initiatives detract from our adaptive capacity.  My perspective is that in the long run we will fail to have anything like sufficient mitigation in place to not need substantial adaptation. This is partially addressed through collaborations at the new NSF Centre at Carnegie Mellon.
  • How can we better characterize the cognitive and affective dimensions of decision-making in different contexts? This is critical in developing more effective public engagement.  The first steps in this research is underway in collaboration with Gabrielle Wang-Parodi (now at CMU) and Prof Tim McDaniels (at UBC).
  • How can we transition from treating energy as a commodity to using energy services?  The challenges here range from the subjective perception of individuals, to institutional inertia, failure of the market and finally inhospitable regulatory environments. I spent a lot of my 2007 sabbatical on this question and ended up setting up a real world lab to study it more realistically.  I have been able to engage a number of students in these projects and a number of projects/experiments are on-going, nothing systematic to report yet.
  • How can we understand and shape regime change? This is another way of broaching the subject of the summary perspective above.  We think we have stable values, but these evolve in response to new knowledge and technology.  In collaboration with Peter Danielson and Ed Levy of the Centre of Applied Ethics a group of us began to explore various aspects of this challenge in 2004 — you can learn more about that work here.

Some of the above are recurring themes in a number of research projects I have spent the last three decades trying to get my mind around. The specific projects we are (and have) engaged with are described in the collaborators part of these pages.  Our future projects will be determined by the interests of whomever joins us next.

Finally, in my experience, by far the best way of knowing if someone is a good advisor is to contact their current and former collaborators and students.