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Fulbright Distinguished Chair in Sustainable Development at HSE

HSE’s Faculty of Law is a partner of the Fulbright Scholar Programme and each year has the opportunity to host a Distinguished Chair in Sustainable Development. David Wirth, a Professor who teaches and supervises research at Boston College Law School, arrived at HSE in this capacity in September 2016. He has shared his research, teaching and collaboration plans for the upcoming academic year at HSE with The HSE Look bulletin.

— What is your background? You went to Yale Law School, but what was your undergraduate major?

— I received a BA in Chemistry from Princeton University and right after that I completed my graduate degree, also in Chemistry, at Harvard. I originally never thought of going to a law school, so I finished college and I continued my studies of Russian language in Leningrad. I decided to take some time off, as I had gone through college and graduate school very fast, and I felt I needed some breathing room.

I took a short break and worked as a chemist in industry, and then ended up going to law school. During my time there, I became interested in environmental issues, which are now known as sustainable development. My international experience in Russia and other places, along with my chemistry background came together very well, and I was in a position to work on global environmental issues from the very beginning. The field I became interested in barely existed then.

— What is your professional experience?

— When I graduated I was very fortunate to get a job at the State Department doing multilateral negotiations on environmental agreements – the ones where you speak into a microphone and your words are translated into five languages. At the time, nobody was doing this kind of work on international environmental issues and their regulation. Our delegation usually consisted of two or three people, and we usually had no instructions. It was a tremendous learning experience. I was always the youngest one there and had an enormous amount of responsibility early on. So, I learned a lot and fast.

I have remained in this field until today. I worked at the State Department for a number of years and then I worked in a non-governmental organization, which is well-known in the United States. I then went into academia. But I’ve always been playing the same game.

— What are you main research and professional interests?

— My work focuses on a variety of issues, the first one being what we may call governance issues - how international institutions are structured. Another area of interest for me is public participation. For instance, if you talk to a citizen of the European Union, they will identify a democratic deficit within the EU. As a general rule, when one gets higher and higher in the international system, there are less and less opportunities for public input. My third area of focus is the intersection of environmental, sustainable development and other substantive issues. For example, recently I have been working in the area of international economic law, particularly in regards to trade and the environment, foreign investment, and food-related issues. Increasingly, we are seeing that all of these issues are connected. A famous American naturalist once said that the first rule of ecology is that everything is connected with everything else. Now it is very much true, so the World Trade Organization is dealing with issues such as food safety, negotiators of the Paris Agreement on climate change are considering development issues, and so on. The connections, which everyone knew to be true, are becoming much clearer, and this ensures more opportunities for interdisciplinary work.

The fourth area I work in concerns the role of science in international decision-making. I have a major project going on right now about science with the World Trade Organization and the International Court of Justice. And, of course, these are institutions not accustomed to dealing with science. One of the things I hope to do at HSE is to make contacts with members of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

I hope that colleagues here will help me to discuss how public policy is made and talk about policy relevant to science. There is a lot of controversy right now in the US about the science of climate change. Scientists will tell you that there is only one answer, but the public is still involved in questioning the science. How science is communicated to the public at large is extraordinarily important.

— You are going to be at HSE for 10 months. What are your plans for this period?

— One of the things I want to do in Moscow is to strengthen my relationship with the Higher School of Economics and this will last beyond my 10 months here. Philip Altbach, one of my best friends and colleagues at Boston College, was one of the reasons I wanted to go to HSE. I hope that I can be useful to my colleagues here.

The Fulbright Distinguished Chair is primarily a teaching grant. I have agreed with Vladislav Starzhenetsky from the Faculty of Law that I shall teach a course on trade and foreign investment, as well as free trade zones. Regional trade agreements are a very big issue right now as a result of Brexit. As such, the transatlantic trade and investment partnership between the US and EU has broken down. This is a tremendously timely issue and I hope we can work on it with students. I have offered to coach the teams for the Jessup Moot Court Competition. I know that they’ve been very successful, and I hope that my experience can help to enhance this. I am also more than happy to contribute an article to one of HSE’s scholarly journals. So, I am looking forward to jumping in and becoming a member of a team.

I want you and your colleagues to feel free to ask me to participate and undertake new initiatives. I am also interested in being an active observer, as well as identifying new opportunities for research and collaboration. The Fulbright says they expect holders of this position to be a resource for everyone within the Higher School of Economics. I welcome the opportunity to work with everybody in any discipline, as I myself have a background in a variety of disciplines. There’s a bit of economics, obviously, law, policy in general and working with international organizations. Hopefully, people will feel free to call upon my expertise.

I have a lot of experience supervising graduate students, both in law and other disciplines. I will be very grateful if both colleagues and students feel free to reach out to me and let me know how I can be a good resource for them.

— Why did you choose Russia as a destination?

— I have always been interested in Russia, so to some extent it is almost fate. I started studying the language at 19, and fell in love with the culture, the literature. Even when my main fields were chemistry and law, I was very focused on languages as well. After I visited Leningrad in 1976 for 10 weeks, I always wanted to come back. Joel Ericson, the head of Fulbright, says that it is a fortunate time to study sustainable development in Russia. So, this is an opportunity for me to contribute in this respect and I truly appreciate this.

— You are travelling to different places as a visiting scholar. Would you recommend traveling to other academic institutions?

— I visited many places, but this will be the longest time outside the US and the longest working in another institution. I am looking forward to seizing the opportunity to immerse myself in the community here at a level I haven’t had before. As academics, we have the luxury of looking at ourselves as a work-in-progress that is never quite finished, there always is something to add. This is a very important chapter at this stage of my career, as I will add a perspective I have never had before through being in Russia for a considerable period of time. Hopefully, I may add something to the city and the institution as well. So yes, I would recommend enriching your own experience and learning from the institutions you visit, as well as contributing to them.

When you visit some place, act not as a guest, but as a host. In other words, be proactive. Hopefully, I will be proactive and get to know HSE colleagues much better. My hope is that people may see me as a resource: even if they have never met me, they will seek me out, as we have mutual interests. 

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