Statistics, Services and Success

How do we assign values to the environment and its services? Can we assign value to ecosystems? What factors influence people’s decisions to pay a certain amount for nature? 

These were all questions I had at the end of August when I embarked on my internship with Professor Andy Keeler. Three months later, and this research project on ecosystem services valuation has added statistical software experience, a couple hundred miles to my car and nearly a dozen questions to the list above. I’m bummed that the semester is coming to an end, because this project has become one of the best parts of the school year. It’s been no cake walk, but the challenge has made the project all the more worthwhile and relevant for further research. 

To start off, Andy assigned me two books to read. Yes, two entire books! At first I was overwhelmed and thought I had signed myself up for the wrong position, but that quickly changed when I realized a book can be read almost anywhere and doesn’t need to be confined to an office cubicle. 

Multitasking at its finest- sunbathing and reading about economic markets!

After reading Nature’s Services by Gretchen Daily, I was inspired to really dig into valuation techniques used by economists to attribute market values to ecosystem services. More specifically, I chose to look at how different individual attributes, such as ethnicity and income, influence how people make value choices towards the environment. In other words, I predicted that white people from higher income households would be willing to pay more money to protect, conserve or enhance the environment compared to nonwhite populations and those with lower income.

The next step was to start modeling. Andy and I were super excited to use Stanford’s inVEST software, that claims to give ecosystem service values as outputs in GIS. Sounds perfect for my project right?  Well, after a painful process of trying to learn how to use ArcGIS on YouTube, as well as understanding the different variables required by inVEST, all I ended up getting was a blank map and no numbers. Even though the model ended up being a dead end for my project, the software was a good starting point to work with and more relevant for research not focused on calculating willingness to pay. 

The next stage of my project was familiarizing myself with two surveys that I ended up using for my statistical analysis. One deals with NC hemlock trees, and the other looks at harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie. Both surveys were kindly supplied by ECU economics professor, Dr. Gregory Howard. I ended up driving to ECU to meet and discuss how to interpret the survey results and input it into statistical software. 

Here’s where the really fun part begins. After a long spring semester of econometrics and Stata, I vowed to never touch the software again. Low and behold I’ve spent the past month maneuvering it, yet again, along with another program called JMP. Even crazier, this project has made me finally appreciate statistics and I’ll be taking applied econometrics next semester! 

My old friend, Stata.

Now, since we’re giving our internship presentations later this week, I’m not going to reveal my “results” quite yet. However, I can divulge the stuff I’ve learned, from a less quantitative perspective. First off, I learned that Andy is working in the coolest field there is. Having him as a mentor for this project and hearing his experiences in this field of economics has been eye-opening to the kind of opportunities I will have after college. For the longest time I thought I was beginning to make-up the term “ecological economics” because so many people told me it was too abstract to build a career, or even degree, off of. When I got my majors switched to Environmental Studies and Economics, the advisor told me it was “the weirdest combination he had ever seen in all his years of advising.” Thankfully, my doubts have dissipated; I think I’ve found my niche in academia.

No, I am not an expert in ecosystem service valuation methods and literature, nor am I even remotely qualified to complete advanced statistical analyses on large data sets, but I do know that this is what sets my curiosity on fire. I have found something that I can run with not only in my academics and career, but also from an advocate’s standpoint. Knowing that there are potentially gaps in how people view and value the environment because of something like ethnicity and income is not only concerning from a researchers perspective. Yes, they’re important gaps we need to understand and interpret, but more importantly they’re gaps we need to address. I think acquiring all of this knowledge and results the past few months has given me a responsibility to address these gaps, not only to make ecosystem service values more accurate and robust, but also to help people have a better connection with and understanding of nature. I know that’s not something I’m going to achieve today, but here’s hoping I can work towards my goal within my career and own personal contributions to society. This realization is ultimately what made this internship a success.