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Published: 06 Oct, 2021

Fearless and ground-breaking environmental economist

PROFILE If Runar Brännlund believes in his idea, there is no hesitation – he will just go for it. And in that spirit, he has both been able to start a successful research centre and found himself in stormy, public debates. Now, one of Umeå University’s most outspoken voices is preparing to draw back.

Text: Elin Andersson

After all, we are researchers within the social sciences so it’s not too much to ask that our research is also strongly tied to society.

33 years after completing his doctoral studies in forest economics at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Runar Brännlund, professor of economics at the Umeå School of Business, Economics and Statistics, is now preparing to retire. He realised early that financial officers, like himself, fill an important role in learning more about the connection that economy has to the environment, climate and natural resources. And how to combine a well-functioning national economy with a sustainable environment. Together with his friend and colleague, Bengt Kriström, Runar put together one of the first ever courses in environmental economics in Sweden in the middle of the 1990s.

“When we started teaching, we realised there was no really good course literature in Swedish on environmental economics. The subject field was so new that there was hardly any decent Swedish terminology to be found either. Textbooks we could come by were often in English and written from an American perspective. There was simply a gap in materials relating to Swedish environmental problems. Bengt and I solved this by writing our own book on the subject: Miljöekonomi (‘Environmental Economics’) published in 1998. The book was a huge success and came out in a second edition in 2012, and is still used as a textbook today.”

In 1995, Runar Brännlund took leave from the university to take on the role as secretary general at the Swedish Ministry of Finance’s Tax Shift Committee at that time.

“During my time as secretary general, I had to approach a different reality than the one I met at the university, which was incredibly useful. Among the committee members were some prominent politicians, such as Bo Lundgren (who went on to become the leader of the Moderate Party), former Minister for Finance Anne Wibble, Lennart Daléus (who went on to become the leader of the Centre Party) and others. I learnt a lot about decision-makers’ perspectives on topics that researchers like myself were studying, and it led to an even greater interest in actually reaching out with my research after that.”

A firm link with reality shapes better research

During his career, Runar Brännlund has also been a researcher in the public eye. He has often accepted requests from journalists, and he has actively taken part in public debate through the daily press. In his mind, researchers have a responsibility to share their knowledge with the public.

“I notice that much of what is said in the media is quite simply incorrect – there is a lack of facts in current public debate. In many cases, researchers actually hold relevant facts, and in those cases, I think we have an obligation to speak out. That is the researcher’s role. Society has paid for our studies and pays our salaries, so we can’t keep our knowledge to ourselves. But few researchers get involved in debate today, and I can understand that. It takes time and effort, and in terms of career development, it doesn’t count. The focus on publications and bibliometrics is out of proportion in academia, I find. The incentives for researchers to do anything beyond their funding and publication strategy are incredibly small. This has certainly changed during my career. The publication frenzy was not at all as noticeable twenty years ago.”

I notice that much of what is said in the media is quite simply incorrect – there is a lack of facts in current public debate. In many cases, researchers actually hold relevant facts, and in those cases, I think we have an obligation to speak out.

Runar Brännlund suggests that his participation in public debate has also increased the quality of his research.

“I often get feedback from decision-makers and the general public when I have written a polemical article or participated in the media. That feedback helps me to better understand the consequences of the problems I study and makes sure I can formulate more relevant hypotheses with firm links in reality for my next study.”

“I’m editor-in-chief of the Journal of Forest Economics and often reject articles because authors don’t seem to understand the problem they’re studying. There’s so much research out there, and it’s difficult to find original ideas, but for that reason in particular, researchers should dare to get out into society and see what problems exist out there. After all, we are researchers within the social sciences so it’s not too much to ask that our research is also strongly tied to society.”

Research on economics and climate targets

Together with Bengt Kriström, Runar Brännlund founded the Centre for Environmental and Resource Economics in 2009. The research centre currently has around 30 affiliated researchers and strong research in not least energy economics and natural resource economics.

“We were researchers in forest economics at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and within economics at Umeå University who already had close collaborations, and we thought we had a lot to gain from take this research environment further. We had a clear idea and vision of how to combine our networks and form an internationally successful research environment, and with that, we’ve succeeded.”

“At the centre, we’re involved particularly in applied research, more applied than what economics usually is. We seek to investigate problems that humans are faced with in the real world. For instance, how we should handle the electricity market, politically and as consumers. Or, what financial reforms can help us reach the climate targets.”

We seek to investigate problems that humans are faced with in the real world. For instance, how we should handle the electricity market, politically and as consumers. Or, what financial reforms can help us reach the climate targets.

Runar Brännlund says that it has sometimes been a challenge to lead a research centre belonging to two universities, the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and Umeå University.

“With the Centre for Environmental and Resource Economics, we’ve had to meet demands from two bureaucratic systems at two universities. To not get completely held back by that, we’ve had to push forward and handle problems that arise as we go along. We knew that we had a strong research environment with a sought-after profile. It would’ve been wrong of us to let bureaucracy stop us. That’s also my advice to anyone who is faced with setting up a research environment – go for it! If you have a viable idea, it will hold. Try not to let bureaucracy get in your way.”

In the spirit of Karl-Gustaf Löfgren

Runar Brännlund’s biggest role model in leading the centre and other research projects has been his mentor, Karl-Gustaf Löfgren, who is now a former professor of economics retired from Umeå University.

“’Kalle’ had several features I find most important in a head of research. Without him, I probably wouldn’t have been where I am today. He had an incredible ability to arouse enthusiasm in others and transfer his own curiosity onto others. He also had ample scientific experience himself. In fact, I think you need a stable scientific base to lead others. He also approached everyone with the same respect. And it’s in that spirit that those of us involved in environmental economics have organised an annual conference on the Swedish island of Ulvön for 25 years now. It’s called Ulvön Environmental Economics Conference. We’ve always invited some of the most prominent international researchers as keynote speakers. One year, we had Elinor Ostrom, who was awarded the 2009 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, and in other years we’ve had researchers just under Nobel Prize standards. It’s crucial for young researchers to see that also these top names are regular people that you can talk to and be inspired by, and the conference also offers an opportunity for young researchers to build upon their networks.”

After retiring, Runar Brännlund will stay at the university as a professor emeritus, but that is not the end of his plans.

“I hold a lectureship and visiting research fellowship at the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, which I will continue. I also have some smaller assignments, such as reports to authorities to write. Beside that, I’m a keen fisher and elk hunter, and I have two cottages – one by the sea and one in Sorsele, where I grew up. So I’m sure I’ll have no problem keeping myself busy.”