Horan earns outstanding faculty award

Richard Horan has taken full advantage of his freedom to explore the diverse and relevant topics that interest him to produce an impressive array of research on his way to also becoming a highly respected teacher.

April 29, 2014

Rick Horan

Over a career that has spanned 14 years at Michigan State University, it’s fair to say Prof. Richard Horan has taken full advantage of his freedom to explore the diverse and relevant topics that interest him to produce an impressive array of research, on his way to also becoming a highly respected teacher.

Horan’s ability to do these two things so successfully for the department of Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics earned him MSU’s William J. Beal Outstanding Faculty Award of 2014 at a ceremony on Feb. 11. Criteria for the award include “exceptional research … in traditional, nontraditional, or emerging areas.” He is the author of 65 journal articles in leading publications including general science, economics and ecology. His publications have garnered close to 2,000 citations everywhere from top undergraduate and graduate texts to mainstream media such as The Economist and Forbes.

In the classroom Horan teaches the undergraduate course Natural Resource Economics (ESA460) and the graduate level class Advanced Natural Resource Economics (AEC 925). Horan also has a distinguished record of advising graduate students, several of whom have won departmental awards. He also has
co-authored numerous published articles with them.

A Pennsylvania native, Horan received his undergraduate degree in math and economics from Appalachian State University. He earned his master’s degree and Ph.D at Penn State University.

“Rick excels in all areas of his program – scholarly achievement, teaching and mentoring and service – and his skillful and effective integration of these program areas has brought distinction to AFRE and to Michigan State University,” according to the nominator’s statement submitted by department chairman Steve Hanson.

For his part, Horan says he is just grateful that he gets to indulge his love of natural resources, economics and environmental systems through his research. Hanson sums up Horan’s work as seeking “to understand how human and environmental systems co-evolve, and how information about human-environmental interactions can be used to construct public policies that correct market failures and move society toward more sustainable outcomes.”

Says Horan, “I like to look at topics that are really relevant, like pollution problems, but hopefully in an innovative manner. I attempt to explore problems in ways that no one has done previously. I also enjoy applying economic concepts to topics that are outside the traditional realm of economics, but that have a clear economic linkage.”

For example, Horan has studied ways to create a workable incentive system between industry and agriculture for trading pollution permits, which has been tried in other forms for the past three decades without much success, he says. Meanwhile nonpoint source pollution, mainly from farm runoff, remains the leading cause of water quality problems in the United States. 

Horan also is involved in two grants to study wildlife and infectious disease problems such as bovine tuberculosis. Again, he has found that the human response can affect everything from taking preventative measures to doing nothing and waiting for compensation. Often those human actions are influenced by government policies or even by what the farmer down the road is doing with his herd.

“We need to understand how human choices can affect these systems and then try to design incentives so people will make biosecurity decisions that will protect their animals from infection,” Horan says.

Dr. David Zilberman from the University of California-Berkeley has called Horan “among the top three best resource economists in the world at this stage of his career … His papers (on the economics of disease) are brilliant technically and insightful and applicable as well.”

Horan’s interest in how man interacts with his environment stretches all the way back to the evolution of early hominids, including humans and Neanderthals. This area of research, called paleoeconomics, examines the role of economic and ecological feedback processes in this evolution. 

“Rick is a pioneer in this relatively new area of research, which bridges several traditionally distinct disciplines such as economics, anthropology and paleoneurology,” says MSU professor and AFRE colleague David Schweikhardt.

According to Horan, humans may have survived and Neanderthals went extinct because humans were more adept at interacting and trading for what they needed, spreading the burden of survival over a larger group. Specialization and trade could have improved the ecological efficiency of the group, even if individual humans were on average physically inferior to Neanderthals. Horan also has studied the ways in which trade and other economic choices may have affected the development of speech in humans, as well as the development of the human brain.

Horan admits that his own brain usually contains more ideas to explore than there are hours in a day. But he has no desire to return to government work, which is where he started his career. His research at MSU is too engaging and “I learn a lot from teaching,” he says. “I have to keep up with advances that are outside my areas of research, and the students’ questions help me look at things in ways I’ve never thought about before.”

– Christine Meyer          

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