Please tell us about yourself.

I am from Kolkata, an eastern Indian city of 5 million people where people very much like their food, their sports and their art. I grew up loving chemistry and biology so a fateful encounter with the field of environmental economics in one of my master’s courses decided my career path. I arrived in the U.S. in 2005 and received my Ph.D. from Penn State University in environmental economics with a focus on economic experiments on farmland conservation policies targeted towards reducing habitat fragmentation. After that, I spent two and half years as a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Stirling, in Scotland. Before arriving at UNL in 2014, I spent a year at Oberlin College in Ohio. There, I had the amazing opportunity to teach undergraduate classes that had students majoring in economics, history and music, to name a few. Trying to explain economic concepts to students from such diverse backgrounds has been instrumental in shaping my classroom instruction.

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How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and interesting career?

Ph.D. candidate Simanti Banerjee discovered her passion for environmental economics while she was earning her master’s degree in India when one day she was in the wrong classroom when the professor showed up. “In India, the student-professor relationship is very formal – it is not proper to leave – so I was stuck there for the remainder of the class,” says Banerjee. The class was in environmental economics and what she heard that day motivated her to switch her focus of study from financial to environmental economics.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

As a graduate student, I was part of a nonprofit – the Association for India’s Development, which raised money and managed multiple socio-economic developmental projects in India. I oversaw a small project on providing out-of-school informal education to 20 primary school children in a region of rural eastern India to reduce the school dropout rate. Successfully managing this project has by far been my greatest achievement to date.

What is your position at UNL? 

I am an assistant professor of Experimental & Behavioral Economics in the Department of Agricultural Economics. I conduct human subject experiments with university students to understand economic decision making in contexts such as farmland conservation policy, charitable giving, public good provision and leadership. In building this research program two key areas of emphasis are social networks, and risk and uncertainty. I am also part of a multi-campus (UNL & UNMC) research initiative on social neuroscience bringing together neuroscientists, psychologists and economists to understand the neural/brain circuitry of economic decision making in domains such as environment and health.

I will be teaching courses on Environmental Economics, and Experimental & Behavioral Economics. Students in these courses are expected to make research presentations, participate in experiments and lab sessions, hear and write essays on radio podcasts and eat pizza (while watching a movie on a class topic!). Teaching provides strong motivation for my human-subject research while serving as a great source of data to assess the roles of different instruction methods in effective learning.

What drew you to UNL? 

I was drawn to UNL’s strong agricultural focus, its membership in the prestigious Big 10 Conference, UNL’s location in the State Capital where it is close to various stakeholder agencies, and the professional and social camaraderie within my department and IANR. The prospect of doing research with Nebraska landowners was very appealing as was the general sense of excitement and interest that I gauged on campus given how extensively UNL has been hiring in the last few years.

Tell us about your work

Banerjee is now working with James Shortle, distinguished professor of agricultural and environmental economics, to develop a market-based policy instrument – essentially a government-funded auction – for biodiversity conservation. Banerjee says she is “pursuing the ecological objective of biodiversity conservation with the help of an economic instrument.” The auction for payments to landowners to implement certain land management practices would be loosely modeled on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), in which eligible farmers and ranchers receive technical and financial assistance to address soil, water, and natural resource concerns on their lands. However, CRP does not include an incentive for implementation on spatially contiguous lands. This is one ecological deficiency that Banerjee’s auction will address.

Spatial contiguity is important ecologically because many species require large undisturbed tracts of land on which to breed and subsist. These are becoming more difficult to find as natural lands are broken up for homes, mining, and other land uses.

Banerjee says that besides encouraging spatial contiguity of managed habitat, another unique aspect of her instrument is that she will analyze and control for collusion, in which program participants discuss their bids before the auction and secretly agree on prices. This invariably ups the bids and decreases cost-effectiveness. Banerjee is designing her policy tool to be generalizable to many different types of lands and wildlife species to increase its potential utility.

Because currently no ecological financial incentive program addresses the need for spatial contiguity, Banerjee is starting by generating data to illustrate how people behave in such a program. “I just don’t have conventional data available that I can use to validate the auction I am designing,” she explains. “So I have to generate my own data with the help of experimental methods. In doing so, I find myself at a frontier area of research.” She plans to have undergraduates complete a competitive bidding exercise to implement biodiversity conservation measures on an experimental landscape. Research shows that subjects’ responses in these experimental environments are reliable indicators of real-life outcomes no matter the background of the participants–whether undergraduates or seasoned business executives. The experimental environment removes contextual factors that can influence responses, such as a tendency to be sympathetic to environmental causes, and induces participants to respond only to financial incentives. In conducting these experiments, Banerjee will use the Laboratory for Economics, Management, and Auctions in the Smeal College of Business.

After completing her Ph.D., Banerjee has concrete career plans. Working perhaps as an employee of a think-tank or consulting agency, Banerjee hopes to field test the resultant policy tool with actual sheep farmers in Britain. Migratory birds such as the curlew benefit from lower numbers of sheep because of lessened grazing pressure. But because most sheep in Britain graze in common, unfenced fields, everyone must agree to reduce their stocking density of sheep to achieve lower total numbers. Banerjee believes this will provide a great test of her model’s encouragement of spatial contiguity.

This is not Banerjee’s first economic study of biodiversity conservation. She previously studied biodiversity valuation through a willingness-to-pay survey for wetland preservation in her native Kolkata. “I saw how important habitat and biodiversity preservation was,” she explains. “It provides livelihood and ecological enrichment to the area.”

Banerjee came to the United States for her Ph.D. in 2005 because most of the tools in environmental economics are being developed here, and to experience a new country. She chose Penn State after conducting a thorough search of U.S. universities. “Penn State just drifted to the top in many categories,” she says. The proximity to Washington, D.C., with its profusion of policy organizations, also attracted her.

She is thoroughly pleased with her choice. “I love the freedom to choose my classes and my Ph.D. project,” she says. “I love my research because of the very real possibility of it being adopted as a policy tool.” She enjoys the camaraderie of the Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology and the opportunity to attend and present her research at professional meetings and invited talks.

In addition to her Ph.D. work, Banerjee is the 2008-’09 president of the State College chapter of the Association for India’s Development (AID), a grassroots nonprofit. The group earns money to donate to carefully selected development and social services programs in India by volunteering for food concessions at Penn State sporting and other events and through the annual food festival–Taste of India–held every April. The group sent about $40,000 to India in 2008.

How does your work benefit the community?

A three-year study conducted by Simanti Banerjee, assistant professor of agricultural economics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, offers insights about how producers can be incentivized to implement environmental land use practices.

In an effort to conserve and restore natural habitat and other environmental functions, the USDA has implemented Payment for Ecosystem Services schemes to encourage voluntary participation, according to a university news release.

In exchange for a yearly rental payment, producers enrolled in one of these, such as the Conservation Reserve Program, agree to remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production or implement various practices on their working lands under the Conservation Stewardship Program.

What aspect of working in an educational setting do you enjoy the most? 

I love the exchange of ideas, the prospect of learning new things, the opportunity to gain a better understanding of opposing perspectives through my interactions with students and faculty, and of course, the chance to influence young minds. A student once came up to me during a guest lecture in an environmental studies course and said that a classroom economic experiment that I ran and in which he participated transformed his beliefs about economics and about himself as a person. That’s a special day, which I expect to remember for a long time!