You could call Bruce Babcock an “economic enthusiast.” As an agricultural economist with research projects that include estimating land use changes caused by biofuels expansion, analysis of the agricultural impacts from climate change legislation, and the impact of state and Federal biofuels policy on investment and production of biofuels, he keeps busy with the study and applications of economics. Babcock is a man who wears many hats: a professor of economics at Iowa State University, Cargill Endowed Chair of Energy Economics for the Center of Agricultural and Rural Development, director of the Biobased Industry Center, and the energy policy platform leader for Iowa NSF EPSCoR.
Babcock is originally from California, but he rarely gets the opportunity to visit his home state unless a conference takes him there. He received his B.S. in economics of resource use and his M.S. in agricultural economics from the University of California at Davis, and his Ph.D. in agricultural and resource economics from the University of California at Berkeley. In 1990, Babcock was working as an assistant professor at North Carolina State when he heard about a job opening that led him to Iowa. “There’s no better place to do agricultural economics than Iowa. So I took the job,” said Babcock.
Leadership Across The Board
The Iowa NSF EPSCoR program is divided up into four research platforms: bioenergy, wind energy, energy policy, and energy utilization. As one of four platform leaders, Babcock’s primary role in EPSCoR is to enhance Iowa’s ability to conduct policy analysis about energy policy and to foster a greater competitiveness in applying for competitive research funds. Expanding on his role, Babcock is trying to build up the interface between economics and engineers, which he finds challenging.
“The big challenge is that engineers use some of the same mathematical tools and some of the same economic models, but often they don’t have as good of an understanding of the economic theory that lies behind those models,” Babcock explains. “They are better in some sense, or as good as economist, in math and applications, and they are better than economist in computer programming and quantitative analysis. What economist can bring to the table is a better appreciation of the role that markets play and often that is underappreciated. My challenge is to try and foster greater understanding. I haven’t figured out how to do that.”
In his previous position as the director of Center for Agricultural and Rural Development (CARD), Babcock focused his research on understanding the impacts of different factors on agriculture markets. In the early 2000s, when ethanol started to rise as a fuel alternative, his role in CARD led him to a heightened interest in the renewable fuels industry. “The growth of ethanol really starting impacting corn markets, and livestock markets, and the whole set of agricultural markets. That’s when I started becoming interested in renewable energy,” Babcock says.
A Step Forward
He describes policy as a road map in energy for where the country wants to go, what types of energy it wants to use and how to get there. “Energy policy is important because if you get it wrong you increase the cost to all the consumers and industry for energy, but if you get it right then you make your economy that much more efficient. It’s really important to set the infrastructure for the markets to develop; and establish the policy framework for electrical and fuel generators, manufactures, and the consumers, to operate. Energy is a relatively small part of most household budgets and if we are serious about cutting the admissions of greenhouse gas, which we aren’t, it would not impose an undo burden on the household budget.” Babcock would like to get past the rhetoric of the anti-climate change people and confront the climate problem head on.
Education is important in bringing awareness of environmental and energy issues to the general population and Babcock feels that it can bring a meaningful experience to students, one they can take with them in the decades to come. “The more students can see the undergraduate education applied to meaningful societal problems the more meaningful the undergraduate education,” he says. “Right now, as we’re looking into the future, and with climate change likely to come about in the next twenty to thirty years, and trying to understand how we can move away from fossil fuels – like what’s the cost and benefits of doing that- it’s going to be a problem students are going to be dealing with during their working career. So the more that they know about it, the more meaningful their undergraduate education is. But also, the more they’ll know about a big problem that we are facing. By no means, is it the biggest problem, but it’s a big problem.”
For now, Babcock believes that Iowa is the most opportune location for energy growth and that Iowa NFS EPSCoR is the way to make the efforts into a reality. “What we need to do is take advantage of the things we have and that’s science and technology, a land base, an agriculture, and a know-how. I think Iowa NFS EPSCoR, by focusing on renewable energy and biorenewables, is on a path forward in terms of taking advantage of what Iowa has to offer.”
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