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Lessons from the Laureates for Economics, Agriculture, and the Environment

David Zilberman, professor, agriculture and resource economics | September 6, 2019


One immediate benefit of winning the Wolf Prize was receiving an invitation to the World Laureates Sanya Forum in China. This meeting hosted 21 Nobel Prize, Fields Medal, Turing Award, and/or Wolf Prize laureates, as well as leading Chinese scientists. Sanya is China’s Hawaii, with tropical weather, beautiful beaches and splendid resorts, where we enjoyed outstanding seafood, clear skies, and luxurious rooms with individual swimming pools. After the conference, I toured the impressive Guanyin statue, which is in the middle of the beautiful Nanshan Buddhist temple in Sanya.  The Guanyin statue is slightly taller than our Statue of Liberty and it has three sides representing peace, wisdom, and mercy.

Guanyin statue

The conference commemorated the launch of a global center for marine science and technology. Each of the laureates gave a presentation addressing the state of their discipline, which I found to be very educational. We had representatives of major disciplines such as medicine, chemistry, physics, computer science, mathematics and agriculture. It was apparent that while science is diverse, its branches share basic features. It is useful to distinguish between basic science (aiming to understand the world) and applied science (aiming to solve problems). Another important distinction is between theoretical and empirical/experimental research. Both basic and applied research can be both theoretical and empirical. In the last century, it has become useful to distinguish between small science (small in terms of scale, Galileo dropping objects from the Leaning Tower of Pisa showing they have the same acceleration and improving the understanding of gravity) versus big science (large scale projects that may be financed by national governments.  Big science started with Ernest Lawrence at Berkeleyand led to the Large Hadron Colliderat CERN). From the presentations, it became clear to me that scientific disciplines evolve over time as old theories are discarded and new disciplines emerge. There is a co-evolution between experiments and theories. Sometimes, new empirical evidence induces development of new theories, while in other cases, theories devised by geniuses inspire empirical efforts to validate them. As theories become more sophisticated and our knowledge of the universe increases, the proof of theories, especially in physics, requires larger and larger scale science and the only way to do this effectively is to open science to global collaboration.


All branches of science emphasize the discovery of new algorithms, and development of procedures to make scientific research more efficient and precise. Mathematics, which is a form of art is providing the tools and mechanisms that enrich science. New mathematical findings and techniques can lead to theories that push science further.[1]Sometimes unintentional byproducts of small and big science are transformational technologies, such as lasers, LEDs, GPS, and antibiotics. The process of discovery also evolved. In earlier periods, many discoveries were serendipitous. With the development of research capabilities, medicine and chemistry relied on brute force to identify valuable materials and medicine. Currently, research in these areas increasingly relies on the understanding of basic processes and a more efficient search for solutions.[2]

Opening Talk

This framework applies to my disciplines of agricultural economics and environmental science. Developments in economics have been fueled by advances in mathematics. Adam Smith used logical and philosophical arguments to identify conditions under which the “invisible hand” of markets leads to efficient allocations. David Ricardo used basic algebra to establish the theory of comparative advantage. In the 19thcentury, calculus was crucial in developing the basic models of supply and demand, as well as those of tradeoffs and duopoly. In the 20thcentury, Keynes developed macroeconomic theories to explain unemployment and inflation.  Von Neumann and John Nash introduced game theory, which is mostly a mathematical construct, and drastically changed the way we understand social and economic interactions. Developments in statistics and computers led to the introduction of econometrics, which has strengthened our empirical capacity to assess both economic theory and policy. Looking ahead, I expect that new insights from small science experiments and findings using big data will lead to the creation of new economic theories and understanding. These expected developments will more fully illuminate  the roles of heterogeneity, uncertainty, and institutions in the economy and society

Traditional Show

In my talk, I emphasized the importance of sustainable development, which aims to improve human well-being while preserving and enhancing our environment. The means to pursue this dual agenda are diverse.  They include policies and technologies to improve efficiency in resource use, promote recycling, and reduce reliance on non-renewable resources. The development of the bioeconomy is crucial for attaining sustainable development. The bioeconomy consists of activities that utilize advanced knowledge and biological resources to produce goods and services, including food fuels and chemicals, throughout the economy.  Regulations that limit the application of genetic engineering, including transgenics and CRISPR in agriculture and other natural resource applications, constrain the evolution of the bioeconomy. The use of biotechnology will make it easier to reduce greenhouse gas emission, adapt to climate change, address food security problems, without increasing the human footprint(see 1,2). Of course, safety is essential, and regulations that balance benefits and risks are indispensable, but taking the notion of “safety first” to its limit is also dangerous. The only inevitable outcome in life is death itself. The rejection of modern biotechnologies that aim to replace brute force techniques for developing new crop varieties is especially disturbing. They are generally more refined, resource-efficient, and productive than traditional methods.

The widespread and ongoing denial of far-reaching scientific findings was a significant concern among participants at the workshop, applying with equal emphasis on biotechnology and climate change. In the discussion, however, I found some differences. When it comes to climate change, it’s clear that the Earth is going through climatic cycles that are related to increased carbon in the atmosphere. I accept the scientific consensus that human activity is an essential driver of climate change and the conclusion that it is crucial to mitigate GHG emissions as soon as possible. While the magnitude of human contribution to climate change is uncertain, even the doubters should agree that mitigation activities are worthwhile.  The probabilities of major environmental calamities in the future are increasing, and mitigation of these risks is prudent.


When it comes to biotechnology, the evidence leaves very little room for doubt about their social benefits.   Thus far, applications of GMOs has resulted in higher yields, lower toxic chemical use, higher incomes to farmers, and lower greenhouse gas emission.(see 3,4,5).  Some GMO traits (Golden rice)can improve food quality and health.  GMOs can also play a major role in mitigating and adapting to climate change. The evidence leaves very little room for doubt about the social benefit of biotechnology even though there may be some applications that could be mismanaged. Of course, this is why screening of new technologies is very important. The bottom line is that people who rely on scientific evidence for decision-making should respect the quality of evidence on both risks and rewards to society. I find it inconsistent toaccept scientific evidence about climate change and not GMOs and vice versa.

This workshop reaffirmed my appreciation of multidisciplinary engagement and the unity of science despite its diversity. As economists, we have shown many times that the high social rate of return for research directly contributes to human welfare, but this was a rare opportunity to see and feel it. I also realize that, as our technological capacity increases and the global economy grows, we face greater common risks. More than ever, we need a unified global front to deal with the challenges of the future.


[1]This point was discussed by Caucher Birkar, 2018 Fields Medal Laureate.

[2]This point was emphasized by Aaron Ciechanover, 2014 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry.