Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Friday, November 20, 2009

Research energizes student on EPA fellowship in Seattle

Evan Johnson


Evan Johnson began work on a doctorate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies in the fall of 2010. He is a member of the La Follette School's chapter of Pi Alpha Alpha, the national honor society in public affairs and administration.

Students recognized for academic achievement

The La Follette School's faculty honored several graduating students for their academic records. Read more

Evan Johnson was pretty sure he would go on for a Ph.D., and his experience at the La Follette School has only confirmed that career goal.

Johnson is in the midst of three research projects. One has taken him to Seattle for eight months as a fellow with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's National Network for Environmental Management Studies. Another is an independent study, and the third is a project assistantship with La Follette professor Greg Nemet.

"All three projects are related on a theoretical level, but each is separate," says Johnson, who is pursuing a Master of Public Affairs and applying to Ph.D. programs. He is working on the PAship and the independent study in addition to the full-time fellowship. "The more research I do, the more I find there is to learn," he says. "I love going to school and the intellectual depth of research. I've got a lot of questions bubbling around that I want to pursue."

One of his research projects gained recognition last spring, winning the first Piore Prize for Best Paper in Science and Public Policy. Johnson wrote the paper, "Developing Selection Criteria for Successful Chinese CDMs: The Prospects of Chinese Clean Development Mechanisms for Global Environmental Quality," with Allison Quatrini for Nemet's Global Environmental Governance course, Public Affairs 866.

Johnson is interning full time with the NNEMS, the reason he has been in Seattle since early June. He is handling the logistics, researching and drafting a report for a large EPA project to address climate change via materials and waste management. "The idea is the traditional sector-based counting of emissions obscures the importance of materials management in addressing climate change," Johnson says.

"A typical understanding of emissions focuses on the impact within a sector such as transportation or residential energy use," he adds. "While this approach is useful, it is limited to solving the problem from only one point of view — energy use within a sector. In contrast, the systems-based framework identifies lifecycle opportunities to reduce and prevent emissions associated with the materials we consume. By targeting materials management, emissions reduction policies are able to influence over 46 percent of U.S. emissions across energy sectors."

Much of Johnson's day-to-day work involves drafting reports and coordinating meetings of people within and across federal, state and local jurisdictions, especially to discuss projects related to climate. "A lot of my duties are to bring many people together, whether through a webinar or phone conference," Johnson says. "The goal of the system-based climate change project is to involve every interested West Coast government in efforts to enhance climate policies."

Johnson is also interviewing partners to learn about green practices, participating in field work and conducting research. As part of his development of case studies on effective sustainability, recycling and green building practices, Johnson is meeting with state, local and tribal partners to learn how they integrated improved environmental practices into their businesses.

Of the two La Follette projects, the EPA venture has the most in common with the independent study, Johnson says. "For that, I'm looking at consumer willingness to pay for measures to create climate stability," he says. "Certain communities have a greater willingness to pay to prevent dryness or have cooler weather. People's sociocultural roots are a factor. I'm looking at estimates and studies of willingness to pay for climate stability, then drawing in data from other disciplines, such as sociology and psychology to see what drives that willingness."

Johnson notes that he appreciates the flexibility of the La Follette School in helping him take on the EPA fellowship and still graduate in two years. He signed up for the independent study and three internship credits to retain his student status and his project assistantship. He is cutting the fellowship a month short to return to Wisconsin for his last semester. "Everyone as La Follette has been really helpful," he says.

Johnson advises incoming students to carefully plan their first year, to balance learning as much as possible with not over-taxing themselves. "Students should think carefully about whether to take that fourth class or spread out the work." He opted for that fourth class both semesters his first year. "I didn't have a lot of free time, but I got to go to Seattle," he says.

For his project assistantship with Nemet, Johnson is preparing two datasets and looking at initial graphic layouts of the data for a project on technology flows and emerging energy technologies. At the macro level, Nemet is trying to determine what drives technological change to reduce emissions. "One dataset is a list of all U.S. patents issued in the last 30 years," Johnson says. "The second is pairs of patent citations, when a patent application refers to another patent. The thinking is that the successful or valuable patents make frequent use of patents from outside their technology niche. A patent for wind technology may be more likely to be valuable if it made use of technology from outside wind, say from aerospace patents."

The project assistantship is a happy discovery for Johnson, who says he is not a numbers person by nature, but more of a communications-oriented person. In that way, the EPA fellowship is making good use of his communications skills. However, he finds he appreciates the deep immersion in a focused question.

"Working with the datasets is giving me a totally different skill set and a new set of mental exercises," says Johnson, "and I'm excited about the possibility of how this nuanced study could have wide-ranging ramifications. In terms of the big picture, the type of correlation between a patent's success and its level of external citation will have implications for virtually any discipline or field of study with the research questions that could follow from this down the road."

— updated March 14, 2011