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Interview with Visiting Faculty- 18


As a CEI visiting faculty, Professor John Gibson (Professor, University of Waikato) visited the Institute of Economic Research for 3 months, from April 5 to July 4, 2023. Prof. Gibson is a development economist who studies the living standards of various developing countries. In his recent research, he uses night-time lights as a tool to measure economic activities, and at the same time, examines whether there are errors in the results of the measurements. In the interview, we asked him how he became an economist, what are the features of remote measurements, and if he has any message for young scholars.

Road to becoming an economist

Q. How did you decide to become an economist? Is there any person or any event which influenced you to become an economist?

I grew up on a farm, as many people did at that time in New Zealand. I came to university to study agricultural science. In the first year, I thought that I would help breed crops that would help to feed people. I learned there had already been a thing called the Green Revolution, which had done plant breeding but still, lots of people didn't have enough to eat. Some people had too much, so the questions were not about production, but about understanding consumption, distribution, etc. So even though I kept my Agricultural Science degree, I moved mostly into agricultural economics and economics. And then eventually, after some years away from a university working for a development agency in Papua New Guinea, I earned my Ph.D. from the Food Research Institute of Stanford University whose goal was to understand food production, consumption, and distribution on a global scale, which is exactly where I had started from. So as a result, I had very little training in some parts of economics compared to most younger people who have much better mathematics because I've moved sideways from agricultural science.

Q. You first had a background in agricultural science and then moved to economics.

You have a faculty member here at Hitotsubashi from the Food Research Institute as well (i.e., Kurosaki-sensei), but unfortunately, Stanford closed that institute. So future people wouldn't be able to go to the same place as Kurosaki-sensei and I did to do that, which is unfortunate.

Research field

Q. Could you please explain your research field in words that non-academics can understand?

Much of my research is involved with trying to measure living standards. Traditionally, this is done by surveys in which we go and observe households for one or two weeks. This is a very expensive process because, in developing countries, interviewers may have to live in the village with the villagers to keep a detailed record of everything the villagers are spending their money on. Also, it is more than just tracking how they are spending their money because they're also eating what they are producing, so this is what we call "auto-consumption". 

More recently, researchers have been using other ways of measuring economic activity and well-being, sometimes using what we call remote measurements, namely, satellites, to detect activity. A lot of my research is using that and we are trying to understand if there are errors in those measurements and if those errors then affect the conclusions we draw. I've done a lot of experiments with different ways of doing surveys, including different approaches to remote measurement and also comparing the remote measurement and the on-the-ground surveys.

Some of these types of data are suitable for some things, but not for other things. Part of the reason is that satellites are not precise enough to measure exactly where the lights are. If you think of Kunitachi and around the University Guesthouse, it's not too close to Daigaku-dori or the main streets, so it's not very bright at night. It's nice, but if you're in Tachikawa, Kokubunji, or Ginza, of course, it's completely bright. The satellites do a good job, where there is continuous light. They do a less good job when the lights might only be on occasionally like in rural areas, especially because they're often measuring quite late at night like 1 am or 2 am. Normally at that time of night, there are only streetlights, and not many people are doing work outside.


Q. It must be a meticulous process to find out which data is correct and which is not.

One unfortunate aspect is that we often don't know which one is correct because we don't know what is the absolute truth. We may believe one is closer to the truth than the other, so it's less definitive than someone doing an experiment in another field. Sometimes it's simply a budgetary issue because some methods are far more expensive than others. Just before COVID, we did experiments in the Marshall Islands, a very small country in the Northern Pacific. The traditional method would have cost about five times as much, maybe about 4,000 US dollars per household, and provided data that was no more accurate than the simpler and cheaper approach. Sometimes it's just comparing in terms of cost-effectiveness, but we still do not know exactly which one is true.

Q. When did the method of using satellite start?

Other disciplines have been using it for several decades. The satellites have been launched for other reasons. Mostly they were not for research reasons but for practical reasons of the Air Force, weather forecasting, and so forth. But as a byproduct of that, the recordings they were making were used by people looking at pollution or urbanization. For economists, it's only been about the last 15 years that they've become aware of these sorts of data. Sometimes economists are only aware of a narrow set of these data, but there are newer data available, of which they haven't yet become aware. And those newer data, of course, often are doing a better job, because sometimes the newer data now are being developed for researchers rather than for Air Force or other reasons.

Q. So for economists, it started about 15 years ago. It is very interesting that you can make observations from high above.

The use of these data has become particularly popular in the last five to six years. Especially during COVID, when people couldn't go and do measurements, while the satellites continued to observe things happening.

Working at Hitotsubashi

Q. How did you find living in Kunitachi? Are there any memorable moments or episodes?

Yes, Kunitachi is very nice for me to live in. It's a nice quiet place. It's not too busy.

Q. Is this your first time visiting Kunitachi?

I visited just for a day in 2009. At that time, we were staying near Roppongi. So, I just remember it was a long way from the city center and surrounded by trees. It's very nice because of the parks. We've been to Showa Kinen Park in Tachikawa, the National Garden in Shinjuku (Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden), and the small one in Kokubunji, just near the station. And there is also an old shrine just behind Yaho station. They're little pockets of like a block and of course in the university area too. That was a very pleasant surprise. It's also very nice to be around the Kunitachi station area at 2 or 3 pm and see all the little school children catching the train. We would never see school children in New Zealand going so far by train by themselves. They're very self-reliant.

Q. Kunitachi must be quite different from where you live.

Yes. We live on a small farm of 8,000 square meters. So that's quite different. Sometimes on Nambu Line from Yaho station, you can see small farms and little plots with trees and corn or rice. But ours are quite a lot larger than that. We normally have two beef cattle that grow on our farm and it's about five kilometers from the University of Waikato. It's like a 10-minute drive. It's a completely different experience. No train, no bus, either walk, drive, or use the bicycle. The university is on the edge of the city because it used to be a farm owned by the government as a research farm, so it was easy to turn into a university. The city grew in a different direction, not towards where we live. So, we are living in the countryside.

Message for the young researchers

Q. Could you please give a message to the students or young scholars in your research field?

I think it's important for younger scholars to know that telling a story about something that they have researched as it is will be useful. Maybe they've done a very detailed study on one particular place. A good descriptive story can be quite helpful. Sometimes they struggle to try and fit into a currently fashionable approach, which might be a statistical approach or some other approach. But it doesn't always fit. They try to force it into that rather than letting the information they've gathered tell its own story. Obviously, younger scholars are trying to get a job and trying to do what's currently popular. But we lose some insight. In English, we have the expression, "putting a square peg into a round hole." Sometimes there are things that our research just doesn't fit into the currently popular approach. And younger students or younger scholars feel the need to try to bend it into them. Sometimes it's better to, just as I said, tell the story of what they found. It may not therefore go to the best journal or they may not get an offer to the best Ph.D. program. But it will be truthful to the people of the area they have studied, how those people live, or what their experience has been. And that itself is quite a contribution.

It may not look as, I'm not sure how this will translate into Japanese, but it may not look as sexy as some other ways of doing things. But sometimes those other ways are simply not appropriate to the places of study or may not be attainable because they require a huge research budget or other kinds of things. It's good to do a good job of what it is that they need and studying with the best methods for studying that situation even if that method is not the one that's going to give them the best job.


Q. Students would feel relieved to hear your message. We can find similar situations in Japan, too. When seniors at universities are trying to find jobs, they feel pressure that they have to write or tell something that would impress the companies they are applying for.
Exactly. Fitting into a pre-specified box. It can be frightening if you're trying to create something to do that. 

And I suppose I have another message. In my last year of high school, I went to the United States on exchange. Students who go on exchange to the United States for high school do it for sports and socializing and so forth, but not to do mathematics. So I went from halfway through high school mathematics in New Zealand to Stanford University economics, Ph.D. mathematics with nothing in between. And so of course, that's a big jump. I think the vast majority of young scholars will have much, much, better mathematics than me. And that will help them in some ways, but economics has really moved. Especially, empirical economics and development economics have really moved away from having a strong basis in mathematics. So, if they have the opportunity to do Mathematics paper No.6 versus Anthropology paper No.1 or foreign language No.1, it would be better to do something other than more and more mathematics. 


Thank you, Professor John Gibson, for sharing your precious time for this interview. It was very interesting to learn that the observation of night-time lights can be one of the methods to measure economic activity and that it was especially useful during the COVID time. Also, your message for the young scholars must be very encouraging for them. It was a great pleasure for us to have you here for the 3 months and we wish you all the best in your future research!

Interviewer: Eriko Yoshida and Nana Yamamoto, CEI (recorded June 28, 2023)