Middlebury professor Akhil Rao wins national dissertation award

By Hannah Bensen

Courtesy Photo
Akhil Rao’s doctoral dissertation won the CGS/ProQuest Distinguished Dissertation award in the social sciences field.

Professor of Economics Akhil Rao was named one of two winners of the 2020 Council of Graduate Schools/ProQuest Distinguished Dissertation Award, a prestigious honor for doctoral dissertations

Awards are given to recent doctoral recipients who have made unusually significant and original contributions to their field. Each year, two winners are announced — one from each of two disciplines that rotate annually — and awardees receive a $2,000 cash prize. Rao received the award in the social sciences division for his dissertation, “The Economics of Orbit Use: Theory, Policy, and Measurement.”

Rao also received the 2019 Wallace E. Oates Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation Award from the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists. 

In an interview with The Campus, Rao said he considers the award an acknowledgement of his work’s relevance. 

“One thing that I worried about as I was working on my dissertation was: Am I just going to be shouting into the void? Is anybody going to be paying attention?” Rao said. “Winning the award, to me, means that other people saw it and said, ‘Yes, this could matter.’” 

Rao’s dissertation research examines earth’s orbits as a shared resource. In an email to The Campus, Julia Berazneva, assistant professor of economics who also studies environmental economics and natural resource management, described Rao’s research as “pathbreaking and crucial for humanity’s exploration of space. 

“Similar to the problems of fisheries management, atmospheric carbon control, or traffic congestion, it is costly to exclude individuals/companies/countries from accessing and using the Earth’s orbit,” Berazneva said. “So that orbit space begins facing problems of congestion and overuse (and to accumulate space debris), which increase the risk of collision.” 

Rao’s dissertation researches “orbital-use fees” as a mechanism of managing this problem and shows that implementing such a fee scheme could help align the private incentives of satellite operators with society’s long-term interests. The dissertation is part of a larger canon of theoretical research about natural resource issues and — more broadly — about problems that haven’t occurred yet, Rao said. 

“There’s a lot we can learn by looking at the past, and there’s a lot we can say then from that knowledge about what will happen in the future,” Rao said. “I think with a lot of these kinds of natural resource problems, if we can get ahead of the curve, we are doing ourselves and future generations a favor.” 

While writing his dissertation, Rao built his institutional knowledge of the topic by reading papers in topics as varied as engineering and natural resources. Then, he wrote and solved simple theory models by hand or on the computer. The next step of his process was to locate a data source and examine the analytical possibilities of that data. At the time, data about space was limited, and Rao’s dissertation is theory-heavy as a result. 

Though Rao’s work is both theoretical and empirical in nature, he also considers himself to be a storyteller. He generates many of his research ideas from reading science fiction stories and news articles. 

“Rao’s work is unique, technical, daring and fun,” Berazneva said. “The Economics department is incredibly proud of Professor Rao’s achievements and we absolutely love having a space economist in our ranks.”