New Professor Combines Environmental Engineering with Political Science

August 22, 2018

Professor Shiran Victoria Shen joins the Department of Politics after receiving her Ph.D. from Stanford University. Her recent scholarly honors include the 2017 Paul A. Sabatier Award from the American Political Science Association for the best paper on science, technology, and environmental politics and the 2018 Malcolm Jewell Award from the Southern Political Science Association for the best graduate student paper. She is also the recipient of numerous highly competitive university, national, and international fellowships and grants.

Professor Shen’s research probes into how incentives shape environmental politics. Sheobserves that politics plays a significant role in the regulation of air pollution, which kills more people than AIDS and malaria combined and endangers the health of over 95 percent of humanity around the world. The high responsiveness of air pollution to regulation makes it an excellent case to fathom the effect of political incentives on policy implementation over time.

Her dissertation, The Political Pollution Cycle: An Inconvenient Truth and How to Break It, offers a new answer for the systematic variation in air quality over time, emphasizing the whenover the why. Using China as a natural experiment, Professor Shen finds that local agents in China catered to the policy prioritization of their political superiors, who decide their career advancement, and in the process fostered local political regulation cycles. These cycles resulted in regional patterns of air pollution over time. Towards the end of a local leader’s tenure in office, the leader would ease environmental regulation when the economy and stability were highly priced, leading to what she calls “political pollution cycles.” When the environment became significantly valued, the leader would order more environmental regulation near the end of tenure, giving rise to what she calls “political environmental protection cycles” in some regions. Both types of political regulation cycles incurred tremendous welfare losses and human costs. She also identifies preliminary supportive evidence for political pollution cycles in the United States and Mexico. She argues that electoral and career incentives of local politicians or leaders influence their prioritization of multiple policy goals over time, with systematic environmental consequences, and this may hold across regime types.

In her other works, Professor Shen employs survey experiments to understand the determinants of public support for green energy as well as integrated assessment models (IAMs) to illuminate the social dimensions of climate impacts. As many extant works have suggested, climate change affects the incidences of violence—on a large scale such as civil wars and at a smaller scale as in the case of interpersonal violence. A current paper integrates the costs of climate-induced violence in projecting optimal carbon prices for the next two centuries.

Practically Speaking

Professor Shen is very interested in the applied aspect of research. She asks, “how could policymakers use the research results to achieve desired policy outcomes better?”

Her dissertation suggests that the intensity of regulation towards the end of tenure was underpinned by the desire to (over)comply in the most critical policy area. Independent monitoring provides a promising solution for reformers.

Her work on public receptivity towards wind energy generators in China offers critical insights into the types of information that, if provided, would solicit urban support for the development of wind energy.

Her work on carbon pricing connects the climate-economy and the climate-violence systems by putting forth a new way of pricing carbon to help contain climate-induced violence. It may provide a reference point for climate negotiations.

Why UVA? Three New Research Initiatives

The University of Virginia is a magnet for researchers like Professor Shen. She is especially excited by two new pan-University initiatives.

She is naturally drawn to the new Environmental Resilience Institute, helmed by Professor Karen McGlathery of Environmental Sciences. The Institute pulls from broadly disparate disciplines including professors from Urban Planning and English Literature. Two other Politics professors participate in the Institute: Sonal Pandya, working on international political economies, and Paul Freedman in media and politics.

The Data Science Institute is a precise match to her expertise in machine learning and data-driven research. She indicates ML has a lot of future in political science research. She previously used machine learning to predict and map pollution burden scores at the census tract level in the U.S. Because there are missing data values she uses machine learning to determine what those values could be and then arrive at comprehensive pollution burden scores.

Her broad computing experience in statistical and spatial analysis (R, ArcGIS, ENVI, Google Earth Engine) and programming and modeling skills (Java, Python, GAMS, DICE, MATLAB, SimaPro, and even Fortran – some more developed than others) will be a strong match to the collaborative environment of DSI.

Next Up

In the coming semesters, she hopes to teach a graduate seminar to students from across grounds who are interested in environmental resilience, particularly air pollution. She envisions a course filled with scholars from environmental science, urban planning, computer science, and of course, students in the Department of Politics. Scheduled classes in Fall 2018 include The Politics of Air Pollutionand Environmental Politics in China, and in Spring 2019, Approaches to Environmental Politics.

Professor Shen will continue research based on her dissertation, turning it into a book manuscript (working title The Political Regulation Cycle).

Professor Shen will be co-director, with Todd Sechser, of the Lansing B. Lee, Jr./Bankard Seminar in Global Politics. She hopes to bring climate scientists in as speakers and more broadly, comparative political scientists who are focused on quantitative methods using “fairly fancy techniques to study comparative topics of general interest.”

More Information on Professor Shiran Victoria Shen:
 Academic Website

comprehensive pollution burden scores map
Comprehensive Pollution Burden Scores map