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Neil Lee

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I have great colleagues and the students are top class - Neil Lee

NeilLee

What are you currently working on?

The biggest issue faced by the UK at the moment is Brexit. In academia we’re generally obsessed with migration, with good reason, but we’ve tended to overlook the experience of people who don’t move. But only a minority migrate – around 60% of the UK population lives within 20 miles of their place of birth. I’m particularly interested in people who don’t move, but whose local area experiences significant change – economic decline, large-scale migration or population loss. Does this make them more likely to vote for Brexit or a particular party, as a way of taking back control? 

Another big issue the UK faces is stagnant real wages. A lot of this is driven by low paid work in low-productivity sectors. The government is currently working on an industrial strategy and targeting particular sectors could be an important part of that. I’m working on a project – led by Professor Anne Green at Warwick – which looks at which sectors perform particularly badly, and the type of interventions which might help reduce low pay. (Lots of the reports are available here.)

What is the best feature of the Department of Geography and Environment?

We’re really lucky here – LSE Geography never feels like an ivory tower, separated away from the rest of the world, but can have a real impact on the world outside. Just this morning, my colleague Hyun Bang Shin was on TV talking about the South Korean elections. The Department has some of the leading institutes working on public policy - the What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth is one example. We’re in a privileged position to study issues we think are important. Plus I have great colleagues and the students are top class. 

What's the most memorable place you've visited?

When most of my colleagues head off to the mediterranean to get a tan, I normally go to the rainy, windswept Orkney islands – an archipelago just to the north of Scotland. It’s a beautiful place, with stunning views and clean air. The local whisky is also amazing. I’ll be honest, I wouldn’t have gone there out of choice, but my wife’s family are from there so I was made to visit. Now, if I don’t go once a year I really miss it.

Neil Lee is Assistant Professor of Economic Geography. 

Spotlight series

Clare Barnes

ClareBarnes

Clare, you’re a new face in the Department. What are your first impressions of Geography & Environment, and of LSE more generally?

I am not only new to LSE, but also to London and to a certain extent the UK academic environment, after spending the last thirteen years abroad. I have been working at Utrecht University in The Netherlands for six years, teaching on Environmental Studies and Sustainable Development programmes, and conducting PhD research in Environmental Governance. I’ve been made to feel really welcome in the Department and appreciate everyone fielding my many questions on how things work (and always with a smile!).

I am really jealous of the students that get to study here! The wide range of courses to choose from mean students can put together a very exciting and challenging programme. I am also impressed by the level of support on offer to help students study, which seems like a really important resource to help them make the most of their time here and, importantly, have fun at the same time.

For me personally, it is great to be exposed to different perspectives on the environmental issues I work on. We all need our assumptions to be challenged from time to time to help us refine our thoughts and grow academically, and I look forward to doing that with colleagues and students at LSE.

What areas of the environment does your research focus on?

I am really interested in the governance of natural resources in the Global South. Nine years ago I spent six months volunteering for a small NGO in a rural area of Cambodia with alarming rates of deforestation. My time there made me confront my naïve assumptions about forest dependent communities and opened my eyes to the complexities of managing forest resources. Local teenagers gave me a glimpse into their lives – aspirations, fuel wood collection, hunting, farming, family, school, the looming threat of eviction by illegal and legal logging companies, fetching water, friends, dancing, a sensitive political climate etc. – and it made me question how interventions by NGOs aimed at reducing deforestation play out when confronted with such complex realities.

What approaches do NGOs employ when they work with community forest institutions set up to manage forest resources? Can they influence the creation of a supportive policy environment? How can we measure their success? These questions eventually turned into PhD research on interventions in community forestry in three states in India, theoretically informed by common pool resource theory, international development literature and critical institutionalism.

Of course this work raised more questions than it could answer and I’m currently exploring angles for future empirical research on how and with what effects NGOs scale out interventions in natural resource management beyond the initial small pockets of success. Having spent most of 2016 writing up my PhD, I’m looking forward to tackling my ‘post PhD reading’ folder and getting back out into the field!    

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

Hopefully I’m lucky enough to still be in a function that allows me to spend my time researching and teaching about the environmental issues I feel passionately about. It is a pretty luxurious position to be in to get to work with intelligent, engaged students whilst developing my own thinking and research on the governance of natural resources. I’m excited to see where my new research project on scaling out NGO interventions in natural resource management takes me and who I’ll get to meet along the way.

Clare Barnes is LSE Fellow in Environment. 

Simona Iammarino

Iammarino

What are you currently working on in your research?

I have several works-in-progress with different co-authors, mostly around what traditionally has been my main research area: Multinational enterprises (MNEs), innovation and regional economic development. The current research focus is on the impact of MNE operations on local industries and regions – in terms of various indicators (e.g. innovation, jobs, structural change) – looking at both inward foreign investment and outward investment abroad and considering new policy approaches.

I have a few forthcoming talks on this topic, as for example, the Lezione di Economia Marche 2016, a public lecture at the Facoltà di Economia 'Giorgio Fuà', Ancona, 30 May 2016;  again as a key-note speaker at an event organised by the Italian Confindustria and British Council in Sofia, Bulgaria, 13 - 15 June 2016; and as discussant at the Workshop 'Smart Specialization in a Comparative Perspective: Challenges and Ways Forward', European Commission, DG for Regional & Urban Policy, Brussels, 27 June 2016.

Another active research area is that of the relationship between supply and demand of skills and local economic development in Italy, for which my co-authors and I will present a new paper at both the Workshop on 'Risk and Resilience: A Regional Perspective', Roma Tre University, 31 May - 1 June 2016; and the Uddevalla Symposium hosted by Birkbeck, University of London, 30 June - 2 July 2016.
 
How do you divide your time between research and Head of Department duties?

This is a difficult question, as I am not sure that my balance is ideal! However, being HoD is a big responsibility and a highly demanding task, and one has to be prepared to put research on a side as there are other priorities. I learnt that adjusting my own expectations is crucial not to feel permanently frustrated. Thus, I do less than before, more focussed on maximum a couple of research lines, and I think that for the moment I have different sources of personal reward, first and above all the appreciation of my colleagues. Obviously, I look forward to my sabbatical when my mandate is over in summer 2017!

What do you enjoy most about working in the Department of Geography & Environment?

The people. All of them, academics and administrators, LSE Fellows and GTAs, and the students both UG and PG. I am very lucky as my Department is a good working environment, where people are open, collegial and like getting together socially.

Simona Iammarino is Head of Department and Professor of Economic Geography. 

Austin Zeiderman

Austin Zeiderman

We have reached the end of the academic year. What will you be working on over the summer? 

I’ve just finished teaching an LSE Summer School course, An Urbanising World, together with my colleague Hyun Shin. We had a lot of fun, thanks to a great group of students, and I came away newly energised about my summer research plans.

Having just finished a long-term project on security, risk, and political life in Bogotá, Colombia, I’m starting to think ahead to what comes next. To help get the ideas flowing, I’ll be spending a good month or so making my way through a stack of new and exciting books, which have been impatiently winking at me from my bookshelf. I’ll be reviewing a couple of them, but for the most part I want to immerse myself in the latest stuff coming out of geography, anthropology, Latin American history, and urban studies.

I’ll also be reading everything I can find on Colombia’s most prominent and storied river, the Río Magdalena. As many will already know, a negotiated peace accord between the Colombian government and the FARC is on the horizon, and the country is anxiously anticipating the end of one of the world’s longest running armed conflicts. I’m particularly interested in the literal work going into building Colombia’s post-conflict future, and a major initiative to revive shipping traffic along the river is arguably one of many large-scale infrastructure projects motivated by the elusive promise of peace. I’ll be in Colombia in August and September to start interviewing people involved in the Río Magdalena project and to spend some time along the river itself, watching oil barges float downstream to the coast and dredging operations excavate centuries of sediment.

Colleagues at the Universidad de los Andes will also be kindly hosting an event to mark the launch of my recent book, so there will some time set aside for celebration, as well. 

Your first book, Endangered City, has just been published. How did the book come about? 

I’m always intrigued by that question, as well as by how I find myself answering it. In the preface, I tell the story of arriving in Bogotá for the first time in 2006. I was immediately struck by how often friends and strangers alike would go out of their way to inform me about the dangers of everyday life in the city. There was something oddly familiar about this, since it reminded me of how, as a kid, I had learned to navigate my own hometown of Philadelphia. It also seemed to be a particularly good example of a wider, perhaps global trend whereby cities are increasingly preoccupied with potential hazards lurking on the horizon. But this seemed paradoxical in Bogotá, since by all accounts the city was now far safer than it had been for quite a while, and urbanists and security experts from around the world were busy heralding its rebirth.

How, why, and to what effect do concerns about security and risk continue to shape the political life of the city? That was the question I would spend years trying to answer. But this was only part of the story. I began my research at a time when many Colombians were justifiably wary of yet another gringo coming to study violence in their country.

One couldn’t ignore the turbulent and traumatic history of the armed conflict, but it felt necessary to look at what else was going on. So rather than studying violence and insecurity directly, I decided to come at these topics from an angle by thinking about threats and dangers of all kinds—especially those seen to originate in nature rather than society.

I made contact with the municipal housing agency, which was relocating populations out of areas defined as “zones of high risk” for landslides and floods. For me, this became a way to analyse how concerns about threat and danger, about security and risk, were reconfiguring what it meant to be an urban citizen. The rest is history (or geography), so to speak.  

What do you think is unique about Geography and Environment at LSE? 

I came to the LSE in 2012 after finishing a doctoral degree in anthropology at Stanford University. I was trained in a style of anthropology that took the discipline’s history and methodology quite seriously, but that also encouraged engagement with a wide spectrum of research topics and intellectual traditions.

I spent a lot of time reading and learning from the work of geographers, and often felt that had I not ended up studying anthropology, geography could have been an equally good fit. So when I joined the Department of Geography and Environment at the LSE, to a certain degree I suspected I would feel right at home. What I didn’t expect was for the department to be as inclusive, collegial, and supportive a place to work. I attribute this to the fact that we’re such a diverse group of staff and students from all over the world with an astoundingly wide range of backgrounds and interests: from bona fide, card-carrying geographers to those with training in economics, sociology, urban planning, architecture, development studies, social policy, and much more.

I may be the lone anthropologist, but I’m never lonely. For one’s disciplinary training is rarely the primary identifier that determines how we interact with one another. I often find myself wondering what, then, holds us together—what it is that we all, to some degree, share—and I’ll go ahead and hazard a guess: a strong commitment to generating unconventional insights into questions of public and political relevance on the grounds of rigorous empirical work that takes seriously the specificities of space and place. I’m sure many of my colleagues in the department would put it differently, and perhaps even disagree—but I bet they would disagree with a smile.
 
Austin Zeiderman is Assistant Professor of Urban Geography.