Believe it or not, in between extended bouts of blogging, I do actually go to school sometimes.

No, really, I do.

My course work is over now. I have four months to whip up a research proposal that, if all goes well, should keep me busy for the following three years.

At the moment, I’m trying to select a dissertation topic, and there’s a huge amount of anxiety involved. Megan suggested I blog some of the research ideas I’m having, and ask y’all for feedback. I’m not having an easy time picking a topic and committing to it, so…

Why not? It’s the 21st century!

OK…so, the only constraint, given the nature of my program, is that I have to write about the “economic and policy aspects of technical change” – a somewhat nebulous formulation that, if I had to explain it, comes down to an exploration of the way economically-relevant knowledge (i.e. technology) is generated, diffused, and applied. Intech is all about researching this topic in the context of the poor countries. How can poor countries upgrade their technical capabilities in order to develop? That’s kind of the underlying question behind all the research here.

So, that’s what I have to write about. Of course, for a doctoral dissertation, the research has to be brutally specific. So the question is, within that broad field, what exactly am I going to research. I’m basically flip-flopping between two ideas.

1-Knowledge flows in the Venezuelan Energy Sector after the Dismantling of Intevep. As you may know, Intevep was the R&D arm of PDVSA. 800 Ph.D. level scientists were working there on any number of projects until last year’s strike, when they were all fired. This raises a series of good research questions: is knowledge and technical capability “destroyed” when you dismantle a large R&D operation? Or is it just transformed, diffused through the economy as the fired scientists rush off to get jobs in other sectors of the economy taking their knowledge with them? Or are these guys all just selling CDs on the Boulevard de Sabana Grande? And what happens to the knowledge-intensity of the oil industry when Intevep is no longer around? Does it wither away, or do you just substitute foreign-generated knowledge for indigenous capacity?

Pros: It would be easy to track down and survey these guys, and it would be fascinating to track them over the next two or three years to see what becomes of their lives and their research capacity. Plus, the literature on R&D in the third world is mostly about what happens when things go right – there are very few studies of what happens when you have an institutional crisis.

Cons: Possibly a not-very-interesting topic if Chavez stays in power, and the majority of the Intevep scientists either emigrate or end up as long-term unemployed. Also, it could take 10 years to complete.

Note: If anyone reading this knows a fired Intevep scientist, please, please, please send me an email and put me in touch!

2-Best Practice in Technology Policy in the WTO Era Lots of people fret that one of the unintended consequences of the WTO agreements is that they close down the spaces available to poor countries to implement policies to upgrade their technical capabilities. Some very bright people argue that traditional tech-policy instruments are no longer possible when you ban sectoral policies, commit to treating local and foreign firms in the same way, adopt strong cross border intellectual property regimes and end of the principle of special and differential treatment for poorer countries. Others say that what you need is creative policy-makers who understand the WTO rules and are smart enough to generate “work-around policies” – designed to advance tech policy goals while remaining within the letter of the WTO agreement.

My goal would be to identify and study one or more of these clever work-around policies. We’re talking R&D tax incentives, publicly financed research institutes, pro-innovation sectoral policies and the like that are WTO-compliant, yet are written in such a way to favor indigenous capacity development. The research questions would be things like: are these clever work-arounds really all that clever (i.e. effective)? Is it really possible to have an effective tech-policy in the context of WTO? How much of the problem can you “fix” with creative policy-making, and how much of it is just inherent to the structure of WTO agreements?

Pros: Much more broadly applicable than the Intevep idea. Relevant to a raging academic/political controversy. Doable in four years. Would allow me the time to teach myself a hell of a lot about the detail of WTO, which I’ve always wanted to do. Feasibility not contingent on Chavez.

Cons: Not about Venezuela. About a topic that I don’t know a lot about at this stage. Could be impossibly dry and dull. I have no idea which policies where I would choose to study as “best practice”, and I’m not that sure how to even identify them.

OK, there you have it. The point here is feedback! Send me an email. Post a comment. Help me out here!