By Lisa Bauer
Globally, 1.5 billion people depend on small farms, which produce roughly 80 percent of the developing world’s food. Yet smallholder farmers remain some of the world’s most impoverished and food insecure people.
Aukrit Unahalekhaka, a co-founder of Ricult, a 2017 Big Ideas winner, knew this implicitly. He had grown up in a family of farmers in rural Thailand, and had witnessed firsthand his community’s struggles with the land. As a graduate student at MIT, he decided to put his education toward a critical piece of the global hunger challenge: financial inclusion for smallholder farmers.
Together with fellow MIT graduate student Usman Javaid, a native of Pakistan, Unahalekhaka has spent the last three years building a digital platform for smallholder farmers to access credit. The founders have been motivated by the fact that farmers who own less than two hectares are economically stuck; they have no means to invest in their properties or agricultural improvements—and often rely on loan sharks who charge exorbitant interest rates, trapping generations of farmers in cycles of debt and poverty.
Unahalekhaka and Javaid also have understood that access to credit is not the only problem for smallholder farmers. Credit is intertwined with other challenges, such as transportation logistics and precise weather forecasting. They thus designed Ricult to offer an integrated digital platform across the entire value chain, tracking end-to-end data and leveraging learnings to boost agricultural productivity and efficiency for all stakeholders, from farmers to input suppliers and buyers. Ricult is an apt name for their innovation. It underscores the importance of the middle of the agricultural value chain (“ricult” are the middle six letters of the word “agriculture”).
Since March 2017, the agtech startup has been working in Thailand and Pakistan, with plans to expand to neighboring countries. It also recently raised $1.85 million in seed funding, with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as the lead investor. Further, Ricult is collaborating with the Telenor Group’s telecommunications company, DTAC, to expand across Thailand, and has caught the attention of seed investors such as 500 Startups.
Ricult is now taking off, but in the early years developing ideas for an effective platform was a challenge. Another challenge was finding funders. The team spent several years applying to student innovation contests, receiving awards from MIT Ideas and the DOW Sustainability Challenge. The founders turned twice to UC Berkeley’s Big Ideas Contest, to take advantage of its eight months of product development, advising, and mentorship. In 2016, Ricult won third place in the Food Systems category. In 2017, the Ricult team earned second place in the 2017 Scaling Up category.
“The exercise of writing a thorough business plan for the Big Ideas competition proved invaluable,” said Unahalekhaka. “It ensured that everyone on our team was on the same page and helped us think through the key points of running a business. We Skyped with Big Ideas staff and mentors several times and received prompt, detailed feedback that helped us strengthen our business.”
One early idea for the Ricult platform was to harness machine learning and predictive analytics for farmers, input suppliers, food processing companies, and banks alike. To do so, the Ricult team developed local and national partners along the agricultural value chain in Pakistan and Thailand. Services to farmers include: access to agricultural inputs, such as improved seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides that are synchronized with crop cycles and priced at least 30 percent below the market rate; and advanced agronomic analytics and insights, such as soil testing, optimal crop rotation, and microclimate weather analytics. By cutting out unnecessary middlemen and decreasing crop spoilage, Ricult is aiming to transfer cost savings to farmers and increase their profitability.
As important, farmers that work with Ricult are gaining access to formal credit and loans at interest rates at least five times below market rate. Ricult links farmers directly with buyers and guarantees payment within 48 hours, a significant departure from the traditional 60- to 90-day turnaround. Timely compensation allows farmers sufficient time and capital to prepare for the next planting season without being trapped in debt to middlemen.
The model, driven by data analytics technology, has increased farmer productivity by 50 percent, according to Ricult reporting. The company also is selling its land data to banks, said Unahalekhaka: “It functions as a form of collateral, so that farmers can finally access formal loans. Basically, we are solving two problems in one.”
Ricult is one of a growing number of social enterprises in developing countries reaping the benefits of technology. While computational advancements have numerous applications for sustainable development, leveraging machine learning to boost agricultural productivity is among the most promising. Investments in agriculture are widely viewed as the greatest weapon against global hunger and poverty; and growth in the agriculture sector has proven to be two to four times more effective in raising income among the poorest compared to other sectors.
“We are a double bottom line company,” said Unahalekhaka. “We want to prove that you can operate a sustainable business, while also contributing to the social good. This model is rare in Southeast Asia, but it’s proven an attractive idea to Thai investors who are keen to give back to the rural communities they grew up in.”
Big Ideas Winner Ricult Advancing Machine Learning for Improved Smallholder Farming
“Economists believe the best way to deal with poverty is to create prosperity, and that works, but not everywhere. Engineers, by contrast, like to invent things that might help. At the Blum Center we're putting them together; it's a different approach.”
Former Secretary of State George Shultz
In the News
"We want to prove that you can operate a business, while also contributing to the social good. This model is rare in Southeast Asia, but it's proven an attractive idea to Thai investors who are keen to give back to the rural communities they grew up in."
Whither 21st-Century Development? A Q&A with Brad DeLong
By Tamara Straus
Brad DeLong, the chief economist of the Blum Center, has spent the past four decades researching, writing about, and influencing public policy in the areas of business cycle dynamics, economic growth, behavioral finance, political economy, economic history, international finance, and the history of economic thought. He graduated summa cum laude from Harvard in 1982, and earned a PhD in economics, also from Harvard. Thereafter, he taught economics at MIT, Boston University, and Harvard, becoming in 1991 a John M. Olin Fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research.
DeLong joined the UC Berkeley faculty as an associate professor in 1993; however, from 1993 to 1995, he served as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Economic Policy at the U.S. Department of the Treasury under the Clinton Administration. There, he worked on the 1993 federal budget, the health reform effort, and the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and the North American Free Trade Agreement. He became a full professor at Berkeley in 1997, and has since also served as co-editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, research associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research, and a fellow of the Institute for New Economic Thinking.
Delong is a prolific contributor to both academic thought and the popular press. Among his scholarly works are: Macroeconomics (a textbook continuously in print since 2002), The End of Influence: What Happens When Other Countries Have the Money (with Stephen Cohen), and Concrete Economics: The Hamilton Approach to Economic Growth and Policy (with Stephen Cohen). He is currently at work on The Economic History of the Twentieth Century: Slouching Towards Utopia? DeLong blogs at “Grasping Reality with Both Hands” and writes a monthly column for Project Syndicate.
The Blum Center sat down with Professor DeLong to gauge his views of the future of development.
Why did you decide to become an economist?
I would say that it was a long, slow process. As I look back, some milestones stand out. Back when I was a child, the father of my best friend Michael Froomkin was an economist—Joseph Froomkin always seemed to have very interesting and smart things to say that came at the world from a different and very insightful perspective than others. When I was 12, I think, at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences meeting I got to spend a day playing with the “World Dynamics” global economic-ecological model. The model, I now realize, was very wrong—we are certainly not on any of the trajectories it forecast. But the idea that you could do such a thing was very interesting. When 1982 came around and I graduated from college, the unemployment rate was heading for 11 percent: my classmates weren’t having as easy a time getting jobs, and so staying in school seemed attractive. Becoming a lawyer seemed to involve too much proofreading of documents; becoming a lab scientist seemed to involve too much moving of small volumes of liquid from one test tube to another.
How have your views on economic policy and economic history developed over the course of your career?
I do not think that they have changed that much. If they have changed, it is in the direction of having less trust in economic theory as anything other than a shorthand way of crystallizing the lessons from history. I no longer think theory generates insights. I think theory provides a filing system for insights derived from history and practice.
What did you learn during your tenure as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Economic Policy at the U.S Department of Treasury?
Newt Gingrich was a real shock—that there actually was such a self-centered politician, for whom facts on the ground and what the consequences of policies would be for real people, was a shock. His electoral success did very bad things to the Republican Party. But outside of Gingrich and his zone of influence, I was impressed and gratified by how much everyone else in Washington, D.C. cared—about getting the facts right, about getting the policies right, about being good stewards for the country and the world, about trying to figure out how to bring us all closer to utopia.
What interests you most in the field of economic development today?
I am not sure if “interests” is the right word—perhaps “worries” is. There is the big question of the future economic role of “skilled” and “semi-skilled” workers. For the past 200 years, the royal road for a country or a sector to achieve successful economic development has been to use its low wage level to develop a comparative advantage and export industry in labor-intensive manufacturing. You thus borrow the middle-class of the global economic core to provide demand for the goods you manufacture and place them in global value chains. And so you can build up a community of engineering practice around which other processes of technology transfer can develop. By doing this, developing economy after developing economy—starting with the United States and continuing to Germany and most recently in China and Vietnam—have proved capable of importing necessary technologies and then nurturing the communities of engineering practice needed to raise productivity further, catching up at least partway to the global economic core.
But as Harvard’s Michael Kremer taught me fifteen years ago, it doesn’t look like there are going to be an awful lot of relatively low-wage, relatively low-skilled manufacturing jobs out there over the next 30 years. Will China and maybe Vietnam be the last countries for this kind of development? And if so, what alternatives do the structural changes driven by advancing technology open up, if any?
Other scholars to consider in thinking about this issue are: W. Arthur Lewis, the only Nobel Prize winner in economics from the island of St. Lucia. He wrote a book called The Evolution of the International Economic Order, laying out how this has worked. And Robert C. Allen wrote a book for Oxford University Press called Global Economic History: A Very Short Introduction. Most recently, Richard Baldwin has written a book called The Great Convergence: Information Technology and the New Globalization about the coming of the value chain world and its implications for global economic structure.
But even these three books don’t have a great deal to bear on the peculiar problems this provides for developing economies. I am planning a conference this fall at the Blum Center to get people together to talk about this question of the future of economic development.
Amartya Sen in Development as Freedom wrote: “Development consists of the removal of various types of unfreedoms that leave people with little choice and little opportunity of exercising their reasoned agency. The removal of substantial unfreedoms, it is argued here, is constitutive of development.” How would you define the unfreedoms that people in low-income regions and countries might experience in the coming decades due to advances in AI, automation, etc.?
The first unfreedom is obviously and simply: poverty.
I was reading 19th-century economist John Stuart Mill before I came here. Writing in 1871, Mills said: “It is questionable if all the mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the day’s toil of any human being.” In his day, he wrote, there was indeed higher productivity and there were a lot more machines. Together they had enabled a greater population to live the same life of drudgery and imprisonment; an increased number to make fortunes; and an increased number to achieve the comforts of the middle class. But they had not had any positive effects on working class standards of living. And in his description of working-class life, Mill used the word “imprisonment”.
Pause there. John Stuart Mill, founding utilitarian, founding libertarian, one of the people most focused on “freedom” as the primary value, thought back in 1870 that the Industrial Revolution had failed. It has left the working class “imprisoned” because it had left them in poverty. “Imprisonment” is a very strong form of unfreedom: you are locked in a cage. Yet the working class John Stuart Mill saw around them had all the “negative freedom” that Sir Isaiah Berlin could have wanted.
But if John Stuart Mill sees freedom not as merely the absence of legal constraint or personal domination but as requiring enough wealth and social power to, as Sen puts it, “exercise reasoned agency,” who are we to disagree?
Lots of unfreedom could go away if only we could rearrange the process of economic development, so that the fruits of increased productivity would flow to the relatively poor in the form of income. Give people things to do the outside world regards as valuable. But this also requires you have to protect the property rights that the working classes have—or else rich and powerful people in your neighborhood will steal your things from you, and it does not matter much if they steal them “legally.”
Do you believe a Universal Basic Income is a feasible public policy to address growing inequality?
Milton Freedman, one of the founders of the Chicago School, was a strong believer in UBI, so it’s definitely out there. There are all kinds of worries about whether it is sociologically and politically unsupportable. There is a strong idea that people simply should never “get something for nothing.” I have never really understood this. We all get a good deal of something for nothing.
If you removed the society around me and all the gifts it has given to me—if you simply put me out in the Sierra foothills, naked, with my abilities to make tools with my own hands, I would starve to death in a month. We are able to be overwhelmingly productive today. But we are so only where we stand on the shoulders of giants, and use a great deal of stuff that has been given to us for free by those who came before us. To ignore this—it is to be born on third base and imagine that you hit a triple.
What about UBI within the foreign aid context, for example, the experiments with cash transfers?
The argument for cash transfers is that you want the people who have a strong sense of how they need resources to be able to spend their own money. The argument against cash transfers is that it’s relatively easy for local power brokers to take the cash away.
I believe delivering direct services, because you have economies of scale, has a great deal to be said for it. I have never understood the argument that service delivery or cash transfers harms people’s work ethic. People really do want to do useful and productive things with their lives overwhelmingly. Look, I had a rich grandfather. His wealth has been flowing to me to the tune of $20,000 per year since I was born until I turned 50. That’s a $20,000 UBI for me. Yet I do not see anyone wandering around saying this was a positively bad thing for me.
Do you use the term the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” to talk about the economic effects of AI, blockchain, nanotechnology, quantum computing, and biotechnology?
Well, it’s not “industrial.” There were two industrial revolutions. Coal and steam and cotton textiles comprised the first one. Then there were the new technologies of the 1880s and 1890s: internal combustion engines, oil, electricity, organic chemicals—that was the second. And I have never understood what the third was supposed to be.
ICT [information communication technology] is a post-industrial revolution. I just call it the ICT revolution, because as Alan Greenspan began saying in the 1990s, the most interesting thing is that the weight of what we are producing is folly. From 1700 to 1990, every year we made more and more stuff in terms of what is masses. And then in 1990, we began making stuff that has had less physical mass.
What does the discipline of economics bring to students taking Blum Center courses on poverty interventions?
Economics is good at getting the second and third order effects rights. For example, when something changes, people will start acting differently as their opportunities change—as the prices, both formal prices and informal prices, are transformed. But as they change what they do, that will affect the environment in which others can act, and what there opportunities are. Economics is very good at tracing those consequences through. And it does so in a way that gets you to not just qualitative but quantitative answers. That is a key analytic perspective—not the only valid one, but a key one.
What is your favorite period in economic history, given your interest in development issues?
I would say from 1870 to 1900, with the advent of: 1) the submarine telegraph cable; 2) the iron-hold, screw-propelled, ocean-going steamship; and 3) the industrial research lab and the arrival of machinery that could be deployed pretty much anywhere in the world.
These three changes made globalization and development on a large-scale possible. Before 1870, the most productive machines by and large did not work outside of England and New England in a way that would make them profitable to use. Before 1870, global communications were far from instantaneous. And before 1870, transportation costs were still relatively expensive enough to keep much of what was made in the periphery from being potentially valuable to the world’s industrial core. After 1870, none of these were true.
The world, however, greatly fumbled the opportunity. Since 1870, our failures of development have arisen from things we have done to ourselves. They have not been because of the absence of usable technologies, blockages to communication, or the tyranny of distance.
What is missing in the conversations today about international development—from economists, technologists, public health specialists?
It is the blind philosophers and the elephant problem. Economists miss the sociology. Sociology miss the economics and also the politics. Engineers miss the fact that the societal systems have to have the incentives for this stuff to actually be used in a way that’s worthwhile.
There are all kinds of ways in which things have gone horribly wrong. For example, think of 1650 in Poland, along the Vistula River. Holland was undergoing an economic boom. And so it was turning its grain fields from places where grain was grown to places where flowers were grown and where cows ate grass to produce milk to be turned into cheese. Suddenly, Holland needed a lot more wheat, which was easy to grow in Poland and, with better maritime technology, cheaply shipped to Amsterdam.
Was this a bonanza for the people of Poland? No. There work became more valuable, but they did not become higher paid. The nobles of Poland took the people and turned them into serfs. It was not a good time for Poland, even if it was a good time for “globalization,” in the sense of the rapid development of ways to grow more wheat faster in smaller spaces and then ship the wheat to places where it was very valuable.
Those are the kinds of things to look out for. Those are the kinds of things to fear.
What’s worked to take people out of poverty?
Land reform, nitrogen, and access to some place where you can sell your skills. What hasn’t taken people out of poverty is this kind of scenario: When the government of Mozambique prohibits the export of cashews to India, because it wants the products of the cashew trees of Mozambique funneled through four sets of South African entrepreneurs, each of whom runs one of the four cashew processing plants in Maputo and have a cartel agreement with respect to the price they will pay to cashew farmers.
What is the role of the university in all these complexities about economic development, whether locally or internationally?
To bring people up to speed on what the issues, opportunities, problems, and dilemmas are. To keep the conversation honest. To have a place where people can think and speak, without having to please powerful people by saying what they want to hear right now.
MarHub: A Technology to Help Refugees Navigate Asylum
Veena Narashiman ’2020
In 2016, as Sarrah Nomanbhoy was starting her MBA at the Haas School of Business, the refugee crisis in Europe was in its second peak year and over a million applicants applied for asylum to the EU.
Nomanbhoy, a native Californian, had been watching the refugee crisis unfold since her undergraduate days at Stanford, where she studied international relations. She understood that the forces behind the crisis were bound to exacerbate the situation and the number of displaced people would only increase. She also began to understand that only 2 percent of refugees have access to voluntary repatriation, resettlement, or local housing solutions; the rest face long-term encampment, urban destitution, or perilous journeys.
At UC Berkeley, Nomanbhoy learned from Law Professor Katerina Linos that many asylum seekers arriving in Europe lack adequate information about how to apply for asylum, particularly how to prepare for the arduous asylum interviews. This motivated her and fellow graduate students Jerry Philip (Haas MBA ’18) and Peter Wasserman (Haas MBA 18) to apply for a Hult Prize focused on the refugee crisis.
Their idea was to come up with a digital means to inform asylum seekers about what to expect at asylum interviews and to convey a variety of legal rights, including the option to review interview transcripts and replace a translator. According to Nomanbhoy, about 70 percent of asylum seekers receive negative decisions after this first set of interviews, and many are in limbo pending the outcome of the appeal process.
With support from various Berkeley grants, the team traveled to Greece during the summer of 2017 to research the project. They saw firsthand that refugees often seek asylum alone, without much legal advice. Although legal aid organizations were on the ground, they witnessed there were not enough resources to accommodate the many asylum cases. As a result, the refugees often went into the life-defining interview process blind, reducing the chances for a favorable outcome.
When the three students returned to campus, they began to develop a chatbot, called MarHub (a reference to the Arabic greeting marhaba), which would allow refugees to receive personalized information regarding their specific path to asylum. Among the team’s insights is that a vast majority of Syrian migrants in Europe and the Middle East own smartphones and thus can be serviced remotely, without a large team on the ground.
Said Nomanbhoy: “The gaps in legal assistance are widely acknowledged, but it’s just a very difficult problem to tackle. When refugees seek asylum, there isn’t enough legal aid to go around. The procedures are constantly changing, and it is difficult for organizations to disseminate new information. We just make that information more accessible.”
By the fall of 2017, the MarHub team knew they had a strong idea, but they were struggling with their implementation strategy. They turned to the Blum Center’s Big Ideas student innovation contest for mentorship and support.
“Big Ideas forced us to flesh out the logistics of our pilot,” said Nomanbhoy. “We discovered some small pitfalls in our initial strategy, and thankfully we were able to proactively address them.”
Katy Digovich, who works for the Clinton Health Access Initiative and served as MarHub’s Big Ideas mentor, proved especially beneficial, as she has expertise in implementing technology solutions in resource constrained environments.
“Katy helped us think about building strong partnerships and managing the expectations of our key stakeholders,” said Nomanbhoy. “There are so many people affected by this refugee crisis. We realized the dangers of wanting to go too big too quickly.”
Feedback from the judges in the first and second rounds of the competition helped Nomanbhoy and her colleagues refine their purpose and think carefully about their approach. Utilizing feedback from the judges in the first and second rounds of the competition allowed the team to refine their purpose and helped them win third place in the Connected Communities category in May 2018.
The Marhub team is now preparing to launch a limited pilot in Lebanon early next year. Refugees there will be able to access MarHub on Facebook messenger and receive updated information instantaneously. After refugees answer a few questions, for example, the MarHub tool walks them through what to expect and how to present their case. The information comes directly from legal organizations devoted to the refugee crisis, protecting refugees from misinformation.
In the short term, Marhub’s chatbot will help people apply for refugee status and resettlement
and provide information about legal rights. In the long term, the team hopes to connect refugees with a wide range of services, including job placement, health services, and housing.
“The scale of the crisis is overwhelming, but we’re starting with a narrow focus,” said Nomanbhoy of her team’s approach. “We hope to expand our scope as we learn more about the needs of our stakeholders.”
By Nicole Rangel
College graduates with interdisciplinary and hands-on skills are in demand in today’s job market. Because they have exposure to more than one discipline and curiosity about the interplay of fields, these graduates are being positioned as necessary to solve societal challenges—from natural disasters and climate change to automation-induced unemployment and epidemics. This shift in academic training is a response to a growing recognition that social, governmental, and business challenges require the collaboration of people with educational training in engineering, law, business, physical science, medicine, agriculture, economics, urban planning, humanities, and computer science— and, most important, the ability to work together interdisciplinarily.
Yet offering curricula that aims to develop students’ interdisciplinary and project-based learning acumen is a challenge for many institutions of higher education. While there is substantial evidence to suggest this educational approach ought to be prioritized, we know little about academic programs that do prioritize education which prepares students to understand and engage with complex real-world problems.
The Blum Center for Developing Economies at UC Berkeley has begun to address this research gap by examining curricula that converges these two pedagogical approaches. The Blum Center is one of a number of academic programs across the country [see chart on next page] that offers hands-on learning experiences, which aim to help students understand their future roles outside the university. The center also facilitates interdisciplinary collaborations among students, researchers, and faculty to solve grand challenges in water, energy, education, healthcare, and wireless communications, among other areas.
The Blum Center is home to Development Engineering, an interdisciplinary field at UC Berkeley created in 2014 that integrates engineering, economics, business, natural resource development, and social sciences to create,implement, and evaluate technologies that address the needs of people living in poverty. Development Engineering’s core class, DevEng 200, is organized around three thematic modules: 1) understanding the problem, context, and needs of a community receiving the intervention; 2) creating effective prototype technologies to social problems; and 3) field testing and assessing the impact of these technologies on the receiving communities.
While the prototypes developed in courses like this one foster interdisciplinary understanding, it is still unclear how they cultivate intellectual strengths from one student in, say, mechanical engineering to another student in, say, public health. In other words, how is the sociological understanding of an engineering student or the design/evaluation skill of a public health student cross-cultivated in this course? How do students push themselves to learn skills that lay outside their expertise under the pressure of academic deadlines? And how do faculty assess aptitude of students in these interdisciplinary skills? The Blum Center is working to understand these questions as well as others, as it strives to provide project-based education that is rigorous not just in process, but also in its interdisciplinary content.
Research about project-based learning has mostly concentrated on K-12 education, and little exists on interdisciplinary project-based learning.Thus in our initial stage of inquiry, the Blum Center has reached out to over a dozen U.S. colleges and universities with academic programs similar to the Development Engineering graduate emphasis, to better understand the broader landscape of interdisciplinary project-based learning in higher education. We administered a short survey, and from the responses received have identified several areas in interdisciplinary project-based learning curricula that merit further investigation. They include:
1) The experience of co-teaching, specifically between engineering and social science faculty, to better understand how co-teachers encourage interdisciplinarity among students from different majors.
2) The need to identify best practices among faculty who have taught in this space, with complementary input from the participating students about their perceptions of these approaches.
3) An assessment of the opportunities and challenges involved in interdisciplinary project-based learning, according to faculty and students. Because interdisciplinary project-based learning is not the norm, it is crucial to understand what faculty and students see as the incentive for engaging in this type of learning and what are the challenges in offering it.
Specifically, project-based learning has been credited for appealing to students’ motivations, strengthening their ability to problem-solve, refining their conceptual knowledge, and fortifying their sense of agency. Interdisciplinarity is recognized as fundamental for preparing students for democratic participation and is a growing imperative for U.S. colleges and universities at both undergraduate and graduate levels.
In line with what the literature suggests, the Blum Center sees promise in project-based learning, particularly when taught with an interdisciplinary approach. In the coming months, we will share a report that aims to deepen our understanding and ability to provide meaningful and effective education that not only benefits students, but also enterprises and communities around the world in need of support.
For an example of the Blum Center’s previous work in this area, see the Development Engineering Toolkit: Lessons on Implementing a New Multidisciplinary Program Uniting Engineering and the Social Sciences
Nicole Rangel is an educator and Ph.D. candidate in the Social and Cultural Studies of Education program at UC Berkeley.
"There are so many people affected by this refugee crisis. We realized the dangers of wanting to go too big too quickly."
Why Interdisciplinary Project-Based Learning? Assessing the Benefits and Challenges at U.S. Institutions of Higher Education
Interdisciplinarity in the Age of Specialization? Some Thoughts on 21st-Century PhDs
By Sophi Martin
When you get a PhD, you are the world’s expert in some narrow but incredibly deep scientific realm. You have asked a question never before asked, developed a hypothesis informed by reviewing the previously collected knowledge in the space, spent significant time testing, defending, and retesting your ideas--and arrived at some new truth.
Perhaps you were part of a dynamic and interdisciplinary research group that met regularly and engaged in intellectual battles that strengthened your knowledge. Perhaps you spoke with your doctoral advisor infrequently and to other researchers even less so. Perhaps you’ve had access to a network of mentors and advisors and peers. Regardless, you emerge as an “expert,” expected to ask great questions and seek knowledge, and society generally regards you in an impressive light.
But what happens the day after you wear your tufted hat and are marked as “doctor”? The 2018 report “Graduate STEM Education for the 21st Century” from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine finds that graduate programs don’t do a great job of training graduate students for non-academic careers, where complex challenges cannot be solved by one smart and dedicated individual, but rather require collaboration across many fields, with colleagues who may have other kinds of training, or perhaps no training at all. Will you be able to communicate with your peers, with your boss, with people who work for you, and with society at large in a productive way? How will you oversee other researchers when you’ve never had any exposure, let alone real training, for managing projects?
A recent National Science Foundation meeting of multidisciplinary programs highlighted various approaches to transform this graduate student experience from that of developing a lone genius toiling away in a lab to one that prepares graduate students to tackle complex new fields of knowledge--like data-enabled science or the food-water-energy nexus--while also building critical skills in communication, collaboration across multiple disciplines, and leadership.
The two-day symposium brought together over 60 NSF Research Traineeship (NRT) programs to share ideas on how to build these skills, how to assess whether the approaches work, and how programs like these might fundamentally change how graduate students are trained. The programs seek to build bridges across departments—e.g., blending civil engineering, energy sciences, environmental sciences, agricultural economics, business, and public policy, as the InFEWS program from UC Berkeley’s Blum Center does. The NRT programs also support graduate students conducting research at the intersections of these fields, aiming to build lasting bonds between the participating departments after the grant period concludes.
NRT Graduate Student Anaya Hall, said the NSF meeting provided an “opportunity to get to know students and faculty in other programs across the country and to learn from each other on how to foster interdisciplinary research, while preparing for a variety of career paths.” She added, “It was inspiring to know the program at UCB is serving as a model for its commitment to diversity and inclusion as well as encouraging science for a broader impact.
Dawn Culpepper and Colin Phillips of University of Maryland, College Park remarked in a joint presentation that the “NSF Research Traineeship allows students to develop competencies in framing the importance and potential impact of their work.” In addition to building academic depth, they argued that the NRTs serve to shift the values and highlight the context surrounding the academic research by exposing students to different perspectives—showing how other disciplines might view the same challenge or asking how communities might be affected by research questions. The NRT’s emphasis on communication skills trains students to clarify their role in research and explain what they are doing and why to diverse stakeholders, thus building more well-rounded researchers and job candidates.
With over 100 NRT programs nationally, there are emerging benefits—communications, ability to work in teams, seeding new areas of research—as well as consistent challenges. Repeatedly, the NRT program representatives at the meeting cited that fostering true collaboration among faculty across campuses was difficult, due to time pressures, insufficient funding for dedicated research projects, and insufficient recognition among the academic community for interdisciplinary work. Many programs discussed the bureaucratic barriers of establishing lasting cross-disciplinary programs, like certificate or degree programs, individual classes or series of classes. Almost every NRT at the meeting cited challenges in securing enduring institutional and financial support for team teaching, program staffing, and program elements such as communication skills workshops.
Finally, there is a clear mandate from NSF that programs like this must influence their own institutions, and ultimately influence other institutions nationally. With academic innovation typically taking multiple years, if not decades, it will be some time before programs that offer deep technical training plus interdisciplinary learning are the norm for STEM and other doctoral students. The harsh truth is that not all great programs are scalable or should aim to be a priori. And indeed, it is the deep personal connections between students and mentors, and student peer groups, that was cited by NRT students at the NRT principal investigator meeting as the most special, and personally transformative, part of their program. Although some coursework might move online, a whole interdisciplinary training program inherently cannot live online, in a MOOC, or some massively distributed medium. Fostering people skills takes people—in real life--and while expensive to support students, faculty time, staff time, and program cost, it is 100 percent worth it.
Since interdisciplinary learning at the PhD level has become of core national interest--undisputed in necessity by business leaders, university heads, and innovators of all walks—there needs to be federal funding available for it. For decades, educating well-rounded, articulate, technically proficient students has kept the U.S. competitive in science and technology and influential in global politics. Now, with the continuing effects of globalization, climate change, and the information and computational revolutions, we need students who can work at the intersections of fields with the greatest chances for ensuring both our survival and our most ambitious dreams for progress.
Sophi Martin is the Innovation Director at UC Berkeley’s Blum Center for Developing Economies, where she serves as the Program Coordinator for the NSF-funded InFEWS program (infews.berkeley.edu; DGE # 1633740)
Leslie Lang Tsai on Effective Philanthropy and the Chandler Foundation
How do we create enduring prosperity rather than address just the symptoms of poverty?
This is a question that the Chandler Foundation (formerly known as the Cassia Foundation) has been grappling with over the years. On September 5, Leslie Lang Tsai, who serves as the assistant vice president and general counsel of the foundation, spoke at the Blum Center about the challenges of effective philanthropy and the road the Chandler Foundation has taken to achieve it.
As she addressed the packed room, Tsai, who earned a B.A. in Rhetoric and a B.S. in Business Administration from UC Berkeley, noted there are now more opportunities for Cal students to focus on poverty alleviation and social impact. When she graduated in May 2006, the Blum Center was just about to launch its Global Poverty & Practice minor and the Big Ideas student innovation contest. The landscape of poverty alleviation, particularly on the UC Berkeley campus, was shifting toward ideas about how to understand, build, and maintain effective programs, using a mix of history, social science, and technological innovation.
Tsai started her talk with a thought experiment, asking the audience of largely undergraduate and graduate students: If you had one billion dollars, how would you use it to eliminate poverty and create inclusive prosperity?
Answers from the audience ranged from unconditional cash transfers to maternal health investments to comprehensive education programs, allowing Tsai to introduce the audience to the Chandler Foundation’s method for determining how to invest in effective organizations in the field. She recounted that Chandler Foundation Founder and Chairman Richard F. Chandler, who started his philanthropy in 1997, underwent “four seasons” of giving before deciding to apply a “Business House Investment Strategy” based on John D. Rockefeller’s idea that giving is investing.
Richard Chandler and his brother, Christopher Chandler, both successful investors, believed, per Andrew Carnegie’s maxim, “It is more difficult to give money away intelligently than to earn it in the first place.” Their first philanthropic venture, Geneva Global, became the first “philanthropic investment bank,” advising the donor community with the same level of advice they’d expect if they were making an investment.
In subsequent years, Richard Chandler focused on operating social enterprises as well as supporting social justice leaders before he ultimately created the Chandler Foundation. Tsai said its grant-making program is based on three lessons learned from Richard Chandler’s prior social impact ventures: 1) address the root causes of poverty, not the symptoms; 2) “stay in our lane” as investors; and 3) have measurable impact and return on investment.
Tsai shared that the foundation’s model is to work collaboratively through partnerships. The Chandler Foundation is a founding donor of the Co-Impact collaborative, along with the Bill & Melinda Gates and Rockefeller Foundations, which aims to address global poverty through systems change solutions. The foundation’s approach also places a significant emphasis on encouraging all those involved to hew to the “values at the heart of property: humility, accountability, and integrity.”
Near the end of the program, a student from the Global Poverty & Practice minor asked Tsai how best to pursue a career in poverty alleviation. Tsai, who has worked in corporate law at Sullivan & Cromwell and in development at Microclinic International and the World Bank after internships at the United Nations, the African Development Bank, the Supreme Court of Rwanda, and the Special Court for Sierra Leone, shared that a typical career path in the social sector is not a straight line. She advised students to gain expertise and marketable skills in technical areas such as law, engineering, and business, or specific sector expertise in health or urban planning--and to not necessarily focus on how the nonprofit industry works.
Ultimately, she advised, “Develop marketable skills while following your passion and purpose.”
The video of Leslie Lang Tsai’s presentation about the Chandler Foundation can be viewed here.
Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U) is President Clinton's initiative to engage the next generation of leaders on college campuses around the world. Each year, CGI U hosts a conference where students, youth organizations, and topic experts come together to discuss and develop innovative solutions to pressing global challenges with policy makers, topic experts, philanthropic, and leaders from the public, private, and NGO sectors. Participants attend plenary sessions, workshops, networking events, and a day-long service project. This year CGI U 2018 will take place at the University of Chicago from October 19 to 21.
Each CGI U student must make a “commitment to action”: a specific plan of action that addresses a pressing challenge on campus, in the community, or in a different part of the world. Students can apply within five focus areas: education, environment and climate change, peace and human rights, poverty alleviation, and public health.
This year, 31 UC Berkeley students were accepted to attend CGI U. Their projects are described below.
Artists in Residents
Students: Monica Schreiber (Public Health), Kyle Gibson (Public Health)
Artists in Residents (AiR), is an initiative of the Suitcase Clinic, a weekly student-run organization that has been serving Berkeley’s homeless community for over 30 years. In response to the mental health needs of this population, AiR seeks to provide arts and music programming within clinic spaces while leveraging the Suitcase Clinic’s unique ability to elevate and advocate for unhoused Berkeley residents. The team will partner with local community partners to implement art and music workshops, galleries, and performances. AiR will provide creative outlets for self-expression, promote mental health, and foster self-efficacy and upward mobility. Over one year, AiR will work with 30-50 individuals to provide safe spaces to practice, develop, and showcase their artistic talents. AiR won 1st place in the Art & Social Change category of the 2018 Big Ideas Contest.
Our Campus Kitchen
Students: Lucinda Laurence (Architecture), Sara Tsai (Business), Ibrahim Ramoul (Public Health)
In the 2018-2019 year, Lucinda Laurence, Sara Tsai, and Ibrahim Ramoul are committed to enact a centralized waste recovery kitchen on UC Berkeley campus. They will establish a closed-loop ecosystem that streams food waste from the dining halls and transforms them into edible meals for students at an accessible sliding-scale price model. The team plans to improve the lives of marginalized students by offering affordable meals while educating more than 35,000 students in food recovery and security. Each semester, they will lead 125 volunteers to make 600 meals daily by transforming 200 pounds of dining hall waste. Their partners include the Berkeley Student Food Collective, Berkeley Food Institute, Copia, Food Pantry, Educational Opportunity Program, University Health Services, and Cal Dining. Our Campus Kitchen won second place in the Food Systems category of the 2018 Big Ideas Contest.
Students: Briana Boaz (Biology), Carrie Trible (Biology) Emily Kearney (Graduate Student - Environmental Science)
In 2018, Emily Kearney, Briana Boaz, and Carrie Tribble committed to eradicating sexual harassment/assault from fieldwork in order to create safe spaces off-campus in which everyone could contribute to science effectively. This team will survey the campus community to understand this issue and will use this information to write a code of conduct and create resources to prevent field sexual harassment/assault in partnership with several UC Berkeley campus organizations. These efforts are expected to reach everyone involved in fieldwork and increase the use and awareness of field preparation resources by 50 percent.
Project Air Mask
Students: Anirudh (Rudy) Venguswamy (Economics)
Rudy Venguswamy has committed to creating an affordable respirator mask to help reduce the number of people who die due to pollution and biomass burning related diseases in India. The team will sustainably produce a waterproof, fashionable, and functional respirator that people can wear while outside or engaged in hazardous activity. Project Air Mask will partner with hospitals to distribute masks first to pregnant women, young children, and at risk populations. The team expects to reduce the cases of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and other respiratory infections by 20 percent in 24 months in the states in which this solution is deployed.
Thirty One UC Berkeley Students Headed to Clinton Global Initiative University
The Lemelson Foundation and the Blum Center Partner to Equip Students to Deliver on Big Ideas with a Small Environmental Footprint
The Lemelson Foundation, the world’s leading funder of invention in service of social and economic change, and the Blum Center for Developing Economies are embarking on a yearlong collaboration to enable students participating in the University of California Big Ideas Contest to increase their expertise in developing environmentally responsible inventions and innovations. The initiative exposes students to sustainable practices with the goal of increasing awareness around environmental impact throughout the invention and business model development process—from the materials used to the end of lifecycle implications.
The partnership between The Lemelson Foundation and the Blum Center will enhance the importance of environmental responsibility in the Big Ideas Contest, with special emphasis on the Hardware for Good category. Additionally, there will be an increased focus on engaging students from low-income and underserved backgrounds to participate in the contest.
Since 2006, the Blum Center has hosted the Big Ideas student innovation prize, to provide mentorship, training, and resources for budding social entrepreneurs across the University of California system. Hardware for Good encompasses everything from wearable and assistive technologies and devices to improve agricultural productivity to smart home systems that improve energy efficiency and safety.
The 2017-2018 winner in the Hardware for Good category was Innovis Medical, a blood clotting prevention device for civilian and military trauma care that is being tested on cardiac patients at UC Davis Medical with the aim of FDA approval by 2021.
Said Phillip Denny, director of Big Ideas: “Since 2006, over 6,000 students from more than 100 majors have participated in the Big Ideas Contest, raising more than $2.4 million in seed funding that has been invested across 450 ventures. In this age of climate change and resource constraints, we need more students focused on planet-saving big ideas. We are thus immensely grateful to The Lemelson Foundation for making environmental responsibility an explicit element of the competition and for strengthening our outreach to low-income and first-generation college students. Diversity in innovators leads to diversity of innovations.”
With support from The Lemelson Foundation, Big Ideas 2018-2019 activities will include educational programs coupled with outreach to keep environmental responsibility top-of-mind as student inventors and innovators design new devices and ventures. Judging criteria will also be modified to reflect greater emphasis on environmental impact.
Among the student education programs will be the “Inventing Green” workshop on October 22 to raise awareness and understanding of environmental responsibility in innovation and entrepreneurship among the University of California’s 240,000 undergraduate and graduate students and participating students from Makerere University in Uganda and Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The Lemelson Foundation funding will also support Blum Center practitioners in residence who will provide environmentally responsible design expertise to Big Ideas student teams and their projects.
“Students have the passion and drive to make the world better through inventions and entrepreneurship, and the Big Ideas program will better prepare them to ensure the solutions of today don’t become the problems of tomorrow,” said Cindy Cooper, program officer for The Lemelson Foundation.
“Thinking holistically about environmental impact early on can also lead to more creative product ideas and put startups on a path to being more competitive and resilient as they grow to scale. We’re excited to see what students come up with.”
Blum Center Education Director Alice Agogino was interviewed in Society of Women Engineers Magazine about a recent National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report describing pervasive and damaging “gender harassment.” Said Mechanical Engineering Professor Agogino, who served on the National Academies committee that co-authored the report, “It was very depressing. The fact that this is still continuing to happen and with such huge, negative consequences was quite shocking to me and to many of us.” She further commented: “The solution really is mutual respect and providing a climate that ensures diversity and inclusion in many dimensions. Sexual harassment is part of an overall climate that we need drastically to work on if women are to succeed anywhere.”
Blum Center Innovation Director Sophi Martin was profiled in VentureWell’s Faculty Spotlight series. Said Martin: “I would like to see social entrepreneurship receive more attention from funders, and for more innovative financing models to be supported. Right now, a key challenge is a lack of consensus on what “success” looks like, especially in diverse portfolios. Once we can develop and agree upon a set of measures for social impact, I believe the funding models will grow as well.”
InFEWS Fellow Alana Siegner published “Does Urban Agriculture Improve Food Security? Examining the Nexus of Food Access and Distribution of Urban Produced Foods in the United States: A Systematic Review” in the September 2018 issue of Sustainability. The paper critically analyzes the urban agriculture and urban food systems literature, to understand the impact of urban-produced foods on community food security. Siegner and her co-authors “find that while there is a strong focus on elucidating the multiple benefits of urban agriculture, there are few studies that robustly measure the impact of urban farms on improving food security in low-income communities.”
Blum Center Chief Economist Professor Brad DeLong will interview Bill Janeway about Doing Capitalism in the Innovation Economy: Markets Speculation and the State, 2nd Edition as part the Blum Center Author Series. Janeway is senior advisor and managing director of Warburg Pincus, where he has been responsible for building the information technology investment practice, and director of Magnet Systems and O'Reilly Media. In his book, Janeway argues that today, with the state frozen as an economic actor and access to the public equity markets only open to a minority, the innovation economy is stalled. October 8, 2:00 - 3:30 pm, followed by a reception from 3:30- 4:00 pm, B100 Blum Hall.
Sasha Orloff, CEO and co-founder of LendUp, will be the keynote speaker at 2018 Innovators@Cal: Fostering Innovation Across UC Berkeley. LendUp is a destination for the 56 percent of Americans shut out by traditional financial services, and is designed to promote responsible financial behavior through embedded education, incentives, and exceptional customer service. Orloff is one of the industry’s few CEOs with experience serving customers at both ends of the economic spectrum—the bottom and the top one percent. October 8, 6-7 pm, followed by student pitches 7-7:30 pm. Banatao Auditorium, Sutardja Dai Hall & B100 Blum Hall. Register here.
Nancy Lindborg, president of the US Institute for International Peace and former assistant administrator for the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance at USAID, will speak about her career path as well as current innovations and challenges in preventing and resolving violent conflict around the world. The US Institute for Peace is an independent institution founded by Congress to provide practical solutions for preventing and resolving violent conflict. As its current president, Lindborg has led critical response teams on global conflicts, such as the ongoing crisis in Syria, the droughts in Sahel and Horn of Africa, the Arab Spring, and the Ebola response. October 9, 5:00-6:00 pm, B100 Blum Hall. Register here
The Anti-Trafficking Coalition is holding its annual "Week of Action.” Oct. 3, 7-8:30 pm, Blum B100: The Public Health Perspective with Banteay Srei. Srei will lead a workshop on their public health approach to the sex trafficking of Southeast Asians in the local Oakland community. Oct. 4, 7:30-9 pm, Blum B100: Policy and Policing: Human Trafficking in the Eyes of the Law. Executive Director and Principal Attorney for Justice At Last, Rose Mukhar, will facilitate a discussion about the intersection of human trafficking and the law, and the way leading anti-trafficking policy has taken shape in California in recent years. Oct. 10, 7-8:30 pm; Dwinelle 182: Education and Computer Science in Human Trafficking with AnnieCannons. Laura Hackney, executive director of AnnieCannons, an Oakland-based educational program that teaches survivors of human trafficking how to code will discuss how education and economic opportunity can be used to break the cycle of exploitation. Oct. 11, 7-8:30 pm, Blum B100: Technology in the Fight Against Human Trafficking. Dr. Bob Rogers wil talk about solving real problems with analytics and AI and how the tech industry can help develop long-term solutions to help prevent human trafficking.
In the News
“The Blum Center for Developing Economies may well be the finest program of its kind in the world. It turns out legions of young graduates who are well prepared with the expertise, humility, purpose, and a pragmatic optimism for combating poverty in the US and globally.”
President Jimmy Carter
The University of California, Berkeley has a vital role to play in finding solutions to complex problems that require the collective expertise of many disciplines and the energy of committed individuals. The Blum Center for Developing Economies leverages the talent, enthusiasm, and energy of the University community to address global poverty. Our interdisciplinary problem-solving approach draws on students and faculty dedicated to tackling inequities through innovative technologies, services, and education.
Blum Center for Developing Economies
The University of California, Berkeley
Blum Hall, #5570
Berkeley, CA 94720-5570
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