The impact of education on environmental policy decision-making

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Civil servants in governmental agencies regularly both propose environmental policies for the elected politicians and make own decisions. In making these decisions they may be influenced by legal norms, agency policy and culture, professional norms acquired through education as well as personal political preferences. This study tests how students in late stages of professional training in economics, biology and social sciences handle information in order to make a stylized choice of a national nutrient limit for lake water, or choose a program at a municipal level to lower the nutrient level in a local lake. The purpose is to test whether professional norms acquired during academic education and/or the presence of an international standard influences decision-making. We examine three hypotheses. Firstly, students’ political attitudes affect their choice of major, i.e. biology, economics or social sciences, and thereby indirectly their decisions. We find that the distribution of the political values among disciplines is compatible with the hypothesis, which therefore is not rejected. Secondly, a student’s major influences the kind of information they use and consequently the policy choice they will recommend. In plain words we expected biology students to go for environmentally more ambitious (lower) nutrient limits and economics students to prefer economically efficient (higher) levels. The central result is that while economics majors are more likely than biology or social science majors to choose a cost-efficient nutrient limit, the mean and median values of the nutrient levels chosen by the three groups do not differ from one another in a statistically significant way. Economists thus have a higher standard deviation in their answers than the other majors. The third hypothesis is that the presence of an internationally approved standard level for the nutrient content will significantly influence the choice of national nutrient limit. We find that biology students are influenced to set a lower nutrient limit when presented with the standard than otherwise, thereby rejecting the null hypothesis for this group. For students in economics and social sciences, no significant effect is found. Our results have implications for the feasibility of micromanagement in government agencies as recruiting economists to environmental agencies may not be sufficient to ensure economically efficient decisions. The findings also should sound a warning about the skills learned by economics majors at the two largest universities in Sweden: while some students seem familiar with the concepts of optimality and cost efficiency and able to use them, this applies to far from all of them.

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