Scarcity. Division of labor. Profit and loss. These, among others, are fundamental concepts taught in any foundational economics class. These classes explain the market economy, where prices of goods and services are largely determined by supply and demand. But this doesn’t always occur naturally. Sometimes buyers are motivated to carry out certain transactions like buying an extra cup of coffee to gain more points for a reward or “free” access to a shower, a clean towel, and storage space in return for purchasing a gym membership. Incentivizing toward an end can also make the cost of a good or service a little more bearable for the buyer.
It is on that last point that Dr. Maoyong Fan, a professor of economics at Ball State and this year’s recipient of the Outstanding Research Award, rests his reasoning about why he often makes his own black tea in his office. His preferred coffee place, Starbucks, is in the L.A. Pittenger Student Center, quite a walk from his office in the Whitinger Business Building. The inconvenience outweighs the desire for coffee. So he settles for tea.
A prolific scholar, deftly armed with econometric skills, Dr. Fan has trained himself to ask secondorder questions (about knowledge) when people get hung up on first-order questions (about facts). With over 30 peer-reviewed articles in both Chinese and English journals, a visiting professorship at Columbia and Nankai universities, and currently serving as a visiting scholar at the National Bureau of Economic Research (12 of the 31 American Nobel Prize winners in economics have been researchers at the bureau)1 , Dr. Fan has definitely earned his stripes both within and outside the United States. His academic scholarship crosses multiple subfields of economics while maintaining the themes of health, environment, and labor.
Born and raised in China, Dr. Fan earned his undergraduate degree from Tianjin University and doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley. It was at UC Berkeley that Dr. Fan nurtured his academic interests. “Berkeley is one of the best places a doctoral student can study environmental economics,” he said. “I happened to have a lot of really great professors in this field and interacted with them. I’m really interested in this.”
His upbringing in China—where the pollution problem and its efforts to combat this are well documented —contributed to his keen interest in environmental economics, especially the effects of environmental pollution on long-term health. In “New Evidence on the Impact of Sustained Exposure to Particulate Matter on Life Expectancy from China’s Haui River Policy” published in 2017, Dr. Fan and his co-authors looked at the Chinese government’s policy of providing coal for home heating in cities north of the Haui River. This policy, the paper finds, increases exposure to particulate matter 10 (PM 10), effectively causing a decline of 3.1 years in life expectancy. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines PM 10 as “inhalable particles, with diameters that are generally 10 micrometers and smaller4 .” Dr. Fan and his colleagues concluded that bringing all of China into compliance with Class I standards for PM 10 would save 3.7 billion life-years.
International research work in developing countries can be challenging because of the difficulty in assessing reliable data needed for scholarly research, particularly Dr. Fan’s work using econometric tools and methods to probe policy initiatives.
“One of Maoyong’s most valuable traits is his ability to unlock sealed doors, said Jeffery Perloff, professor of economics at UC Berkeley and Dr. Fan’s PhD dissertation chair.
One of the “sealed doors” Perloff is referring to is the tightly guarded Chinese government’s Disease Surveillance Points System, a data bank of more than 600 counties in China (over 300 million people) to which Dr. Fan was granted access to study the effect of air pollution on mortality through the lens of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.
In the United States, Dr. Fan’s penchant for asking crucial policy questions is unflinching. From agricultural labor to immigration to the hotly debated Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), his work uses large datasets to answer thorny societal questions without wading into the political. In “Do Food Stamps Contribute to Obesity in Low-Income Americans?” published in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics, he examines the impact of SNAP on the health of low-income women. Contrary to a common belief that there is a causal effect between receiving SNAP and an increase in BMI or body weight, Dr. Fan’s analysis using a longitudinal dataset found this belief to be inaccurate.
Tackling issues at this scale, both within the U.S. and internationally while carrying a full teaching load, does come with a personal cost. “No matter how busy I am, I go to the gym and exercise every day,” Fan said. “I swim, I run, I play badminton. I exercise every day. And that can be, you know, floating above the water. But it’s tiring. And when you keep doing this for more than 10 years, or even more than 20 years, you get tired, it takes a toll on your body.”
Coupled with the responsibilities of teaching is the need to support students who have questions about a concept taught in class or are interested in research. Dr. Fan, who teaches both undergraduate and graduate level courses, also enjoys mentoring students who are interested in his areas of scholarship.
Kaiyun Wang, a junior in business administration, got her first foray into scientific research with Dr. Fan in 2018. “After nearly one year’s study with Dr. Fan, I learned the most basic and important step of doing research: organizing the raw data and constructing the final variables for future empirical analysis,” Wang said.
For Wang, her work with Fan has not only elevated her scientific research prowess, but has also prepared her for a career. This is evident as she added: “Dr. Fan broadened my horizons and gave me the best training I could find as an undergraduate.”