Eric Edwards: In Just Four Years, ARE Faculty Member Builds a Robust, Interdisciplinary Extension and Research Program

Eric Edwards joined the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics in the fall semester of 2018. Now, four years later, Edwards has numerous projects and grants, often interdisciplinary, that address current challenges in water resource economics in North Carolina. Edwards earned a PhD in Economics and Environmental Science from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and joined NC State as an assistant professor and extension specialist. Edwards immediately began growing his program upon arrival.

Today, the Water Economics Program fosters a pipeline of student researchers, offers timely analysis on key issues and provides research based information to North Carolinians. Edwards’ extension program has expanded as well, providing outreach and analysis in topics relevant to coastal economiesthe impact of climate change in N.C. and public land management.

We asked Eric to share his thoughts on his current work and the future of his role in supporting NC stakeholders.

How does your training as an economist inform the work you conduct at NC State?

My research, teaching and extension programs are all focused on how we manage natural and environmental resources. Economists are fundamentally interested in the way markets allocate scarce resources. At NC State, I look at how some goods, like clean water, might be underprovided in the market and then try  to find potential remedies. The insight of economics is that the incentives we face every day lead us to take actions that, when viewed collectively, are not ideal, e.g. too much water pollution. Changing these incentives is the key to improving environmental and natural resource health.

What are the priorities and goals of your extension program?

I focus on understanding how incentives shape the behavior of users of natural resources and then engage in outreach to improve outcomes in four areas.

  • Improving nutrient management, protecting ecosystems and conserving water through innovative market and pricing policies
  • Using economic tools and analysis to preserve North Carolina’s natural coastline, estuaries, and amenities while maintaining economic production in rural communities
  • Collaborating to design adaptable, cost-effective institutions to address water availability and quality challenges related to climate change
  • Engaging in policy research to identify and support effective management decisions on public lands

How does an environmental economist support the mission of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences?

The State of North Carolina remains a national leader in the production of many agricultural commodities while rapidly adding to its urban population. Both activities greatly impact the quality of water in the state’s streams, rivers and lakes which in turn affects our health, recreational opportunities, and the livelihoods of our neighbors. There are no easy solutions, and my work helps document the tradeoffs faced by individuals, policymakers, producers and businesses. I am fortunate that my extension appointment allows me to communicate the benefits and costs of various actions to many groups to help improve environmental stewardship statewide.

What do you see as the greatest environmental challenge facing North Carolina?

I view climate change as the largest single challenge. I work with coastal communities and agricultural producers and projections suggest large impacts in these areas. Saltwater intrusion and sea level rise threaten coastal communities through flooding and increased water pollution, as well as estuarine ecosystems that support commercial and recreational fishing. Agricultural production is already being impacted by changing patterns of temperature and precipitation. My research focuses on the impact of adaptation around water management, especially irrigation and drainage, on long-term outcomes.

You recently started serving as associate director of CEnREP, how has this changed your role at NC State?

The activities of CEnREP are strongly aligned with my existing extension program and fundamental to my work at NC State. This new role allows me to focus on building NC State’s capacity to engage economists in tackling the big environmental challenges North Carolina faces. One way to build this capacity is through developing our students’ ability to engage in cutting-edge research. This year, we planned three skill-building seminars for our graduate students—on environmental justice, machine learning, and synthetic inference approaches—along with 10 research seminars from world-class environmental economists, who present research and meet with ARE faculty and students. This transition to facilitating research and connections has been very rewarding for me both professionally and personally.