PPOL PhD Candidate Alicia Harley on the art of improvisation in research for sustainable development

By Calee Lucht

Public Policy (PPOL) PhD candidate Alicia Harley grew up reading about marine biologist Rachel Carson and spending her summers at an Audubon conservation camp in Maine. So, it was no surprise that she decided to study environmental science and public policy as a freshman at Harvard University.

What did come as a surprise, however, was how much she enjoyed doing research.

“While working on my college thesis, I got my first taste of fieldwork and learned that sometimes research methods need to be improvised,” Harley said.

During a research stint in Egypt where she examined housing expansion and loss of agricultural land, she befriended taxi drivers who introduced her to their local neighborhoods.

Alicia Harley researching new technologies that increase rice yields in Nepal.

“It was a random sampling strategy of taxi drivers,” she said. “They were often highly educated, but lacked employment opportunities in their fields.”

The drivers-turned-research assistants not only introduced Harley to their communities on the peri-urban fringe of Cairo, but served as translators as well and provided nuanced insights she otherwise would not have gained. This experience got Harley hooked on research, especially the joys and trials of fieldwork.

It was as an undergraduate that Harley met William Clark, the Harvey Brooks Professor of International Science, Public Policy and Human Development at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS).

“Immediately, it was clear to me that Bill should be my advisor,” she said. After graduating magna cum laude in 2008, Clark asked Harley if she would return to Harvard to pursue her doctorate. “He planted that seed in my head. Ultimately, my decision to pursue a doctorate was driven by an inspirational advisor.”

Two years later, she enrolled in the PPOL Program.

Harley’s doctoral research has taken her to Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan to examine agriculture-related technologies.

“I explore how institutions such as subsidy incentives can drive innovation systems to produce technologies that meet sustainable development goals,” she said. “I am particularly interested in how innovation systems can be reoriented through institutional change to meet the needs of poor people.”

At HKS, Harley has learned crucial skills for conducting high-quality research and applying rigorous analytic methods. The course Science, Power, and Politics with Sheila Jasanoff, the Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies and director of the Program on Science, Technology and Society, encouraged Harley to think deeply about the impact of technology on society, and vice versa. And Institutions and Development with Associate Professor of Public Policy Ryan Sheely taught Harley to think critically about how institutions shape outcomes as well as how actors can change institutions to meet sustainable development goals.  

Harley also took several courses at Harvard Business School (HBS) to augment her studies.

“As a PhD student you have access to experts across Harvard, which is amazing,” she said. Her Design of Field Research Methods course with Robin Ely, the Diane Doerge Wilson Professor of Business Administration, pushed Harley to think critically about what makes a good research question, and to then pick the best method to tackle the important questions of interest rather than the other way around. “This is especially important in the field of sustainability science, a field where problem-driven basic research is at its core,” she said.

So, what’s next for Harley?

After defending her dissertation in September 2016, she will begin a post-doctoral appointment at Harvard. Further down the line, she hopes to undertake a policy fellowship in Washington, DC to gain a more intimate understanding of how research can inform policy, and eventually, she aims to become a professor.

“I love teaching,” Harley said, “and I still want to engage in policy, perhaps advising on large scale development projects.”

And what advice would Harley give to PPOL PhD candidates?

“Be inspired by our faculty members and their work,” she said. “The relationship between student and faculty is a powerful part of your experience. Here at Harvard, you get an extraordinary community of scholars to think about your research with. It’s an incredible place.”

She should know. She’s done her research.