Our ‘Dual Focus PhD’ series tracks the working lives of our part-time PhD fellows. Many work at the highest of levels, both nationally and internationally, including for other parts of the UN system. They come to Maastricht for our unique PhD Dual Career Training Programme in Governance and Policy Analysis (GPAC²). This time Dr. Mindel van de Laar speaks to Clovis Freire from the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA).
You’ve worked on your PhD for the last five years, alongside a full-time job at the United Nations. What were your aims? Why did you choose to do that?
My aim was to develop a deeper understanding of the issues I was dealing with at the UN. For example, promoting the catch-up and long-term development of developing countries, particularly countries in ‘special situations’ such as least developed countries, landlocked developing countries, and small island developing states. Innovation and technological change plays a critical role in that process.
This research started more than six years ago when I was working on a flagship report of the ‘UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific’ (UN ESCAP) in a chapter related to building up the productive capacities of least developed countries. After the preparation of that report, I continued the research focusing on empirical analysis of countries’ patterns of diversification. That part of the study was mainly based on the literature on economic complexity and despite the relevant insights that it provided, I was not satisfied with the level of understanding of the underlining economic drivers and effects.
I was also looking for ways to pursue a formal education in Economics. I had changed my career path a few years earlier and although working as an Economist, my actual training was in Computer Engineering and Computer Sciences. For example, when I joined the United Nations, over 14 years ago, my work was basically to protect the network of UN HQ in New York against hackers. It was after getting more informed about the work of the UN that I became interested in issues related to social and economic development.
In 2005, I moved to ESCAP in Bangkok, Thailand to work on promoting the use of information and communication technologies for development. Over the years, I became more interested in policies and strategies at the macroeconomic level that could assist in rapid structural transformations, as happened in many Asian countries over the last few decades. I looked for centres of excellence where I could learn more, and very quickly I found the UNU-MERIT and its research programme in the economics of innovation and technological change.
When I learned about the Dual Career PhD programme GPAC² and the possibility of pursuing a PhD at UNU-MERIT – while continuing my day job – I seized the chance. I have no doubt that it was the right choice. I have had the chance to be a part of the extremely diverse, interesting and innovative environment of the GPAC² programme and had the privilege of joining the UNU-MERIT community of researchers on innovation and technology for development.
Your thesis entitled ‘Diversification and Structural Economic Dynamics’ links directly to your work at the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA). Can you please share what work you currently do?
Economic diversification is ultimately the result of innovation, and my current work at the UN is supporting the use of science, technology and innovation for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
As you may know, in 2015, country leaders adopted the 2030 Agenda and its 17 SDGs. This agenda is unique, as it represents our common commitment to promoting peace and prosperity for all, while also protecting our planet. Achieving the SDGs is going to require deep transformations in all societies and economies. It is going to require real change towards a path of sustainable development – the kind of change that can be assisted through innovation and technological change.
My work is about promoting and strengthening the interface between science and policy for the implementation of the 2030 Agenda, and the operationalisation of mechanisms to promote science, technology and innovation for the achievement of the SDGs.
In your PhD programme, the Dual Career GPAC², we encourage a link between the PhD topic and a fellow’s work content. Has your work benefitted from your PhD and vice versa?
In my case, the benefits ran both ways. By doing the PhD, I was able to develop a solid theoretical understanding of the linkages between technological change and development, as well as the role that policy plays in the process of economic catch-up. That has improved the quality of policy advice that resulted from my work and the relevance of the policy options that I could offer to decision makers for fostering inclusive development, promoting job creation, structural transformation and the increase of productive capacities.
The PhD also benefited from my work because I had the opportunity to present and discuss my research in numerous seminars, workshops and conferences with government officials who are directly involved in industrial and science, technology and innovation policies and strategies, the issues that I was dealing with in my research. That became an extremely useful sounding board to test the relevance and validity of my research.
I hear you will be joining us again in Maastricht in spring 2018. Does that mean your research career will continue?
I’ll be coming back for an international workshop on the role of structural change in economic development and growth. This will involve paper contributions to an edited volume – a project led by Eddy Szirmai, Ludovico Alcorta, Neil Foster-McGregor and Bart Verspagen – among several other renowned scholars. I am extremely honoured to have been invited to contribute to this project with a chapter on complexity perspectives on structural change.
For the rest, I plan to continue and expand my research, particularly in light of sustainable development. I look forward to more opportunities to continue my association with UNU-MERIT and the GPAC² Programme.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.
UNU / Herman Pijpers; UN Photo / Eskinder Debebe