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Bob Evenson: An economist with heart

David Zilberman, professor, agriculture and resource economics | March 16, 2013

Recently I learned one of my dear colleagues, Bob Evenson from Yale University, passed away. Bob grew up on a farm in the Minnesota and got his PhD at the University of Chicago. He became a leading development economist, and taught for more than 30 years mostly at Yale.

My early impressions, as a student in Israel and in Berkeley, was that Chicago economics and development were an oxymoron. Chicago economists were supposed to be free-market, cold-hearted creatures that only cared about efficiency. Bob was actually the opposite of this stereotype: he really cared about people, and no matter who you were, he would listen to you. He cared about solving real problems and was particularly proud of his contribution to the development of agricultural research in Brazil and the emergence of EMBRAPA as a leading research institution of the world.

After knowing Bob, I realized that the Chicago economists were not that bad. Actually, the greatest development economist ever is probably Nobel laureate Theodore Schultz (he introduced the idea of human capital), who served as Chairman of Chicago Economics; and the great Vernon Ruttan (who popularized the theory of induced innovation) was a Chicago graduate, among many others. I have learned that many of the most creative contributions in development, both economic and policy, came from the Chicago School, which proves that you need multiple perspectives to address major problems.

Bob produced an incredibly influential paper (with Yoav Kislev) that developed a practical economic framework to quantitatively understand investments in research. Research is basically a ‘search’ for outcomes that perform better. The output of research can be measured by improvement in terms of performance but it is also subject to variability. Evenson’s work with Kislev developed a way to compute the distribution of research efforts, and to investigate how extra investment in research can improve outcomes and reduce uncertainty about them.

evensonThis approach justifies allocation of resources towards research. Firms, and even governments, view research like any other economic activity and weigh benefit and cost to determine investments in research. Evenson suggested that if extra social funding of research provides higher returns than other activities, this means that society under invests in research. Bob was one of the major contributors in documenting the high rate of return for different lines of agricultural research, showing that public research in agricultural, especially in developing countries is extremely valuable, making a case for increased investment and improved design of public research. His work in the Brazilian government in agencies like Rockefeller and Gates Foundation was crucial in directing research towards food production, which has saved lives.

Bob was an excellent scholar but he was also an intellectual leader. He was an intuitive leader that would recognize new direction for research and worked very hard to make sure that they will be followed. While he was one of the biggest advocates for public investment in agricultural research, he recognized that to be effective, public-private partnerships were important to induce private investment in research.

To induce private investment in agricultural research, it was important to introduce intellectual property on genetic material. He inspired a lot of researchers on how to design and manage intellectual property in agriculture to make sure that it is not abused. He also realized the potential of genetic engineering in agriculture and some of the likely controversy they may cause and the need for global cooperation for research on this topic.

Together with Vittorio Santaniello he organized a conference in Rome in 1998 on the economics of biotechnology and biodiversity, which lead to the establishment of the International Consortium of Agricultural Biotechnology Research that has been meeting mostly in Ravello, Italy. This has become an international forum to discuss economics and policy challenges as global society increasingly relies on biological based technology.

I was privileged to collaborate with Bob in this consortium and was amazed at his capacity to vision new areas of research, to inspire and finance participation from developing countries, and produce books and other publications that provide a base for sound policy discussion. While he maintained academic excellence, the Ravello conference was a meeting of friends and Bob and his wife Judy made everyone feel welcome. It was an incredible achievement to establish an island of collaboration and reason in the midst of controversy.
Bob’s departing is a loss to his friends, family and colleagues. He was one of these rare individuals that made a difference in the lives of people around the world and blazed a path that many will follow.

Comments to “Bob Evenson: An economist with heart

  1. I never met him, but had relied significantly on his 1999 paper on Agricultural research and productivity growth in India, while writing jointly, with Marco Ferroni, the chapter on agricultural research, for the book titled Transforming Indian Agriculture…, by Sage (2012). I pay my humble tribute in memory of late Bob Evenson.

  2. Dear David,

    I hope you remember me as one of the students of Bob Evenson from North Carolina State University in Raleigh and our meeting during several conferences when Bob would kindly introduce me to you during the conference breaks.

    I am sharing you a copy of the poem that my husband wrote to express both our deep appreciation of Bob for touching our lives.

    Best regards,

    Cynthia and Jun
    Dr. Ma. Cynthia S. Bantilan
    Research Program Director – Markets, Institutions and Policies
    International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics
    ICRISAT, Patancheru 502 324, Andhra Pradesh, India
    Tel +91 40 30713071 Direct: 91 40 30713517
    Fax +91 40 30713074/75

    Farewell, My Mentor

    Los Banos was where my mentor Bob and I first met;
    Then, I, a young graduate student in Statistics;
    He, an ADC associate and young professor, in my mind was set;
    He was teaching Microeconomics and Econometrics.

    I remember his fatherly demeanour;
    He was patient and kind to students;
    We sensed his deep intellectual “armour”;
    To answer questions, as well as give comments.

    As ADC Associate, he culled the applicants for fellowships;
    With luck and hard work, Bob’s recommendation sailed thru;
    His timely presence enabled the turning of the ship;
    To Raleigh, North Carolina State University I pushed through.

    I treasure his working visits in Los Banos;
    On price responsiveness by rice farmers;
    In Zimbabwe, revival of village level studies;
    In Hyderabad, impacts of germplasm-genetic resources.

    When enthused in a discussion, which could last an afternoon;
    Cross-legged, he toyed with foot in sock after shoe was shed;
    You knew when Bob was pleased with work you’ve done;
    By smile inimitable he flashed, as he tilted his head.

    It grieves me most that illness struck him in his strength;
    His brilliant mind and intellect were of Nobel calibre;
    Why, what was bestowed was withdrawn is a puzzle perplexing;
    With Job, our heads and hearts in acceptance we bear.

    Humanity in thought is the richer with his presence;
    His mind, a store of formidable intellectual powers;
    He brought to bear to human problems of wide range;
    His departure left humanity, in thought, the poorer.

    The academic world lost an illustrious son;
    His pioneering work on impact of agricultural research,
    To instruct, inspire and empower—continues on;
    Future scholars will pick up where Bob left his search.

    Joseph, Sarah—Jun and I grieve with you;
    We stand beside you, proud of Bob your dad;
    Your dad was brilliant, yet sensitive to what was due;
    Intellectual legacy he left is more than anyone could grab.

    Judy—Jun and I grieve with you;
    We stand beside you, proud of Bob your husband;
    For care of us his students, a million thanks to you;
    Work of Bob, aided by you, the test of time will stand.

    A mother to us you were, Bob’s intellectual children;
    In the airport, you met us, when I came on a work visit;
    A special Neopolitan pizza with toppings of olive greens,
    In your home, welcome us; and comfortably us at ease you set.

    Jun and I, in mind, strew flowers on the grave where he lays;
    A mentor who touched my life and husband’s;
    To someone of such intellectual generosity, our respects we pay;
    Death his mind did silence; but, his voice continues in his band.

    Here lies an intellectual benefactor;
    He lighted a candle of understanding;
    I pledge to keep the kindle of my mentor;
    To benefit and serve society’s well-being.

    To Judy, Joseph and Sarah—our deep condolences;
    Jun and I are grateful for the opportunity of knowing Bob;
    Our hearts, for him, will always have a special place;
    In Bob’s memory, this poem we offer you with love.

  3. I am so moved by Professor Zilberman’s tribute and by all of your comments. I knew all of these things about my father, but you have all put them into such eloquent words.

    In addition to his academic legacy, he was a good (in the highest sense) father with full custody in rural MN in the 1950s to two daughters, my sister and me, while in his early 20s. He went on to be a good father to my younger siblings, Sarah and Joseph.

    Lest we saint him, he wasn’t perfect. But, I believe that he was a decent, smart, kind, hardworking Norwegian Irish farmer who was blessed to see the world — and when he saw it, he cared.

    Thank you to all of you for being his friend,

    Nancy and family

  4. Thank you for this amazing tribute to our father’s lifelong work and career. It is greatly appreciated by his family.

  5. Thank you, David. You reflected many of Bob’s capacities. He is, and will for many years, be sorely missed.

  6. I was deeply saddened to learn of the death of Bob Evenson. Thanks to Professor David Zilberman for the writeup on Bob’s life and work. As a graduate student at Yale, I knew Bob Evenson as a deeply insightful and humane man and teacher. I felt at the time that his personal modestly meant that he was perhaps not getting the recognition that his more forceful peers found for themselves. It is comforting to see from Professor Zilberman’s note above that I was wrong.

    Jaseem Ahmed, Secretary General, Islamic Financial Services Board; Kuala Lumpur

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