Interview with Ruben Nicolas, researcher

Ruben Nicolas
Ruben Nicolas

I am Ruben Nicolas, born in Utrecht, but not raised. I have been happily living in Amersfoort since 2017, so close enough. I did my master’s in Economic Policy at Utrecht University, which felt like a match made in heaven. I have always liked economics, and by combining it with public policy, there was also room for my inner philosopher. After the master’s - which fortunately I’d completed before COVID-19 began - I wanted to keep close to the field and do relevant economic research for a living. I started off as a researcher at the Economic Institute for Construction and Housing, and recently started as a PhD candidate at the school of economics of Utrecht University. I am also a member of the Utrecht University Center for Public Procurement (UUCePP).

What are you working on and why?

My research topic is sustainable public procurement. In the EU public, organisations procure approximately € 2 trillion annually (that's 12 zeros!). In an economist’s utopia, that money would be spent in such a way as to obtain the highest outcome for society. To achieve this, considering social and environmental aspects, in addition to economic growth, is necessary, limiting the undesirable consequences of the rising sea level or high levels if inequality – to name a few. Currently, such goals are mostly not incorporated in public procurement policy. In the first phase of my research, I want to find out why.

A major challenge of this research is that one procurement method is not necessarily better than the other. A simple hunt for the ‘bad method’ is not realistic. Public organisations each have different ways to procure, just as they each may face different objectives, so I don't want to jump to conclusions.

With this research I hope, first of all,  to contribute to a smooth integration of sustainability goals in purchasing policy. If sustainable public procurement can be made easier, it is more likely that all parties will come along. Wide support is crucial to get transitions going. If smaller municipalities or companies struggle to meet new requirements, due to lower capacity or limited market competition  this will in itself cause problems. Both procurers and suppliers should benefit from this research. I am glad to see that the UUCePP also strongly bears this vision. One of my co-promoters, Willem Janssen, is a jurist and familiar with the environmental and social elements in tender law. A real asset, because the forthcoming economic insights have to fit the law to be of any use. Helen Toxopeus, the other co-promotor, deepens the economic perspective with her insights about nature-based solutions for sustainable urban development, to name an example. How can public procurement be of use for this? 

What makes you get out of bed in the morning? And is this different because of the COVID-19 crisis?

Since COVID-19 I have abandoned my non-snooze policy haha. But, to answer your question, what makes me get out of bed is: people. I am a people person. Not in the sense that I am an outgoing extravert and like to be with people all the time. I care about people and feel called to help make life better for all. This also drives me to do research.

Don Quichotte
Don Quichotte, drawing chosen by Ruben Nicolas. ", a foolish hero who more or less ridicules himself with his good intentions but impractical deeds ."

If government is there for the people, its purchasing policy should reflect this. I realise that it sounds idealistic, but COVID-19 clearly shows that government policy can determine our daily goings.

Is there anything you appreciate in these changing circumstances?

Working from home definitely has a few upsides for my work as a researcher, which requires quite some concentration. In my new apartment I have a small but separate office space where I can work without any distractions. But, I must say, it did take some time to build this routine and guard the infamous work/life balance.

Should we go back to our old way of life after the crisis, or not?

I do not believe that the crisis will have a sudden ending where we get to choose how to pick up life again. It seems to me that a new wind has been blowing for some time now, where social and environmental goals find their way into policy more often. Take for example the uprising of welfare indicators that are broader than just GDP. In that regard, we are moving away from the old way of life and this trend will continue after COVID-19. Meanwhile, this is a turbulent time, where public support can’t be taken for granted and public spending reaches new highs. As a result, we risk favouring short-term goals, which are not always sustainable. It is up to governments to set an example, combining economic stimulus with long-term goals.

Which teacher have you not forgotten throughout your college curriculum and why?

Joost De Laat (Economics of Global Challenges) has left quite an impression. He is a hero in his field (development economics) and managed to explain the methodology of different research specifications (RCT, Diff-in-Diff, RDD and IV) in such a comprehensible manner, that it seemed almost too easy. I once asked him if the level of his course would increase any time soon. He replied that, if this would make me feel challenged, he could give an explanation that was harder to grasp. Later, in another course, some of the same methods were explained, but by far not as comprehensible. This experience taught me that the comprehensible way is the best way. I have the ambition to teach and this point is one I’ll carry with me closely.

Which book has impressed you the most, has shaped you, and would you read 100 more times? And why?

Enlightenment 2.0 by Joseph Heath, recommended by me to Loek Groot, my master coordinator. It wasn’t a page turner and I didn't recognize the genius of it while reading. Later however, I found myself recognizing the world through the author’s many, well-constructed, descriptions. I lent my copy, so I cannot read it back yet, but I have already ordered his new book "Machinery of Government".