Research Spotlight aims to shed light on the diverse research culture of Acadia University by celebrating the work and interests of our researchers. Each profile features six questions: five about research, one just for fun. Learn about what’s happening across campus and get to know the faces you see every day.
In terms of research, what are you working on right now?
I’m an applied econometrician, which means my research focuses on empirical issues in economics. Since I started at Acadia I’ve been pursuing two broad research agendas.
The first one is about tourism economics, and the first project I did related to that – supported by the Acadia University Research Fund and in partnership with Dr. Brian VanBlarcom – was about UNESCO world heritage site designations. When we started our work, Grand Pré historic site was in the midst of preparing their bid. So our question was: should they be successful, what would be the expected economic benefits, measured in terms of visitation and tourism-related income generation?
My interest in cruise-ships came later, when a colleague proposed that a group of economists in the region get together to work on a topic that affects all four provinces in Atlantic Canada. We decided to focus on the cruise industry. We got two research grants from Memorial University – under the CARE initiative: Collaborative Applied Research in Economics – that enabled us to survey cruise-ship passengers at all four major ports in Atlantic Canada in 2016 and 2017. Using the information on visitor expenditures gathered through these surveys, we’ve been able to estimate the economic impact of cruise tourism in Atlantic Canada.
My second area of research interest is about Environmental Justice literature in Canada. There is a very long and enduring literature about the distribution of pollution and socio-demographic factors – age, gender, ethnicity, education level, income, etc. – in the United States, which has consistently found that low-income and minority households experience a disproportionate exposure to pollution, as compared to other more affluent groups. More recently, the literature has developed and expanded its initial focus to explore other important questions, such as why this inequity exists.
This literature is very well developed in the United States, but very little has been done to look at the issue of environmental equity in Canada. So, again with support from the Acadia University Research Fund, my co-author and I started looking at this issue in Ontario specifically. Our question is whether there is environmental inequity in Ontario and if so, what causes it? Are polluting firms targeting low-income neighbourhoods? Or are they locating wherever they can, with the results that people who have the resources to relocate somewhere else do so, and lower-income people come in, attracted by jobs, lower rents, and so on? It’s a chicken-or-the-egg question, and understanding what is happening and why changes the type of policy response that can effectively address the environmental inequity that exists.
Policy is how government responds to our work, what they decide to do about our findings. Yes, there is an inequity – but how it came about, whether it is willing or not, is an important consideration in crafting a policy response. If polluting firms are targeting poor communities, governments can establish regulations and protections. But if they are not, and are instead simply locating close to highways or ports, and poorer households are then drawn to those places for optimal reasons – cheaper rents, better jobs – well, what then?
What motivates you to do this research?
I’m going to give a more general answer: I believe the role of universities in rural areas, especially in small, economically constrained provinces, is extremely important. In the Maritimes, most of the provinces are small, and provincial government staff are already heavily burdened with the work of answer the primary research questions – about the budget, how the province’s resources will be affected by the current economic climate, and so forth – which leaves a lot of other important research questions unanswered. I think we carry a responsibility to the region in which we live in to help answer important questions using academic methods and our expertise.
But there are trade-offs. If you pick local questions, unfortunately, publishing that research in research outlets is more difficult, because academic journals – especially in economics – care more about methodology or general problems, and less about case studies. It can be risky spending years studying a local issue, writing a paper, and then sending it to a journal; unless you can make a compelling case and clearly demonstrate how examination of a local issue can shed light into an overarching problem in the literature, you may face challenges in getting your work published in an academic outlet.
What tips do you give to students who are beginning a research project?
The first question I always put to my students is: what is your research question? You have 10 seconds, maybe 30 if the person is really willing to listen, to explain what you are working on. The second question is: why is it important? Now you’ve got another 30 seconds, and if you don’t use the first 10 seconds convincing me why I should keep listening to you, I might look at your face and smile but I’ll turn off my brain and think about what I’m going to do later.
You need to be able to explain, quickly and clearly in non-technically terms what are you doing – and then why should I care? As a researcher just starting out, you need to be able to make the case for the importance of what you are looking at without even getting into the results, because you don’t have those yet.
Do you have any events or publications we should be on the lookout for?
From my cruise ship tourism project, which is ongoing, I've just returned from giving a talk at MUN on March 15th to report back about what we’ve done and what we’ve found so far. My first talk at MUN, last year, was covered by the CBC: we released our preliminary findings, which suggested that the cruise-ship tourism impact was less than what the cruise tourism association had estimated, so it was a controversial piece.
Outside of your work at Acadia, what are you doing for fun these days
I’m a huge fan of board games. We’re in a golden age right now because there are games about almost anything: you can manage an art gallery, walk in the shoes of a 19th-century farmer in Scotland, or even terraform Mars! I own a lot of board games and regularly attend the TableTop Games Day at the recreation centre in Kentville, where you can go on a Saturday and play games from noon to 8 pm every couple of months. Board games are a great activity because you can socialize and strategize at the same time.
Research Spotlight is an initiative of the Research & Graduate Studies office. If you would like to suggest someone to be featured in this series, or if you would like to be featured yourself, please contact Omar Bhimji, Research & Innovation Coordinator: email@example.com