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Robert Nelson: In Memoriam

Robert Nelson

Robert “Bob” Nelson shared his passion and curiosity, in and out of the classroom, with the entire School of Public Policy community. He was a well-respected scholar and prolific author of ten books and numerous articles.

Throughout his career, Bob explored a wide variety of topics from forest mismanagement to economics to environmental religion to public land rights. In 1993, he came to the School of Public Policy. He taught courses on environmental policy, natural resources and other policy areas. He worked to guide students through policy analysis workshops and field-based policy exercises.

During his career, Bob worked as a nonresident senior fellow at The Independent Institute, an affiliated senior scholar at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and a nonresident senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. He was also a visiting professor at the Universidad Torcuato Di Tella in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Keio University in Tokyo, Japan.

Earlier in his career, Bob was also a member of the economics staff at the Office of Policy Analysis of the Office of the Secretary of the Interior. His career in economics included stints at the Commission on Fair Market Value Policy for Federal Coal Leasing and the Twentieth Century Fund. He was a visiting scholar at the Brookings Institution, visiting senior fellow at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and research associate at the Center for Applied Social Sciences of the University of Zimbabwe.

Bob was the author of several books, including “Lutheranism and the Nordic Spirit of Social Democracy: A Different Protestant Ethic” (2017); “God? Very Probably: Five Rational Ways of Thinking about the Question of a God” (Cascade Books, 2015); “The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion versus Environmental Religion in Contemporary America” (Penn State University Press, 2010);  “Private Neighborhoods and the Transformation of Local Government” (Urban Institute Press, 2005); “Economics as Religion: From Samuelson to Chicago and Beyond” (Penn State University Press, 2001); and “A Burning Issue: A Case for Abolishing the U.S. Forest Service” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2000).

In addition to his impressive list of publications, Bob was known for his curiosity and his ability to look at new or old issues in new ways. He will be deeply missed at the School.


We encourage you to share your thoughts and memories of Bob below. Please note: entries are published daily rather than instantaneously. 



Foreword to Bob's Book  “God? Very Probably: Five Rational Ways of Thinking about the Question of a God” Bob Nelson and I occupied adjacent offices at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy for about fifteen years. This led to many conversations that were pleasant and fruitful because we shared interests in both economics and environmental studies. Also we agreed in our basic worldviews enough to make good conversation possible, yet differed enough to make it interesting.  So when Bob asked me to read and comment on an earlier draft of this book, I accepted. To be painfully honest, however, I thought at the time that I knew a bit more about theology and religion than Bob did, and that while I might be useful to him, I doubted that I would learn much from the collegial duty of reading the draft. It quickly became apparent that I was totally mistaken about that---Bob was the teacher and I was his student. How could I have been so wrong? Had Bob been reticent about his knowledge and wide reading in theology? Had I been unperceptive? Had he learned so much in such a short time? Suffice it to say that I came away from reading the draft with a long list of referenced scholars to read, and with many new insights. The ability to read and absorb vast amounts of material is a capacity that Bob is blest with. His mind is like a huge sponge that absorbs everything, but what he wrings out of it on to the pages of his own writing is not simply what he absorbed, but rather a high-proof distillation that stimulates further thought and insight. Bob’s approach to religion in his important past scholarly work on “Economics as a Religion” had been that of the objective external observer. This book takes the internal approach of a serious prospective believer, weighing the arguments for the existence of God (a generic monotheistic God). His reasoned conclusion is that very probably God exists. He hints that his next book may go further than this. The worldview of scientific materialism has become so dominant on university campuses that a sophomoric atheism, styled the “new atheism,” has become prevalent. It has been preached, aggressively and arrogantly, by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and others. Many, whose study of religion ended with first grade Sunday school, have uncritically accepted their message. As a Christian theist myself I have had a hard time understanding how such a fundamentalist neo-Darwinist materialism could have, until recently, gotten a critical free pass from the intelligentsia. Nelson, as you will see, doesn’t give free passes. Although the thrust of this book is not to debate these thinkers, the self-contradictions of their positions are frequently exposed as by-products of broader discussions, and Nelson helpfully makes the connection, much to my satisfaction. I believe that other readers will enjoy and benefit from the clear, informed, and honest reasoning in this book as much as I did. ---Herman Daly Emeritus Professor March 20, 2015

My faculty colleague (and fellow Casio wristwatch devotee) Bob Nelson has passed away suddenly in Finland. I was pleased to attend his 70th birthday party at his home a couple of years back. I most recently saw him at our last faculty meeting of the year just a few days ago.To say that Bob's interests ranged widely would be a vast understatement. He was one of our true stars, a longtime policy analyst at the Department of the Interior before coming to UMD, a strong advocate for profound reform of national forest management -- he argued for abolishing the Forest Service -- and a nationally-recognized student of federal coal policy. His interests also ranged to education policy -- he was a fan of charter schools -- housing policy, student debt, modern environmentalism (of which he was quite critical) and even the question of the existence of a Supreme Being (about which he wrote recently at book length).I was honored to have intensively collaborated with Bob on our weekly lunch-time speaker series that originated in 2005 as the Tuesday Forum (later becoming the Tuesday Policy Forum and then merely the Policy Forum) and which ran most weeks every fall and spring semester until 2015.A graduate of Brandeis University and Princeton University, Bob had a truly remarkable energy, a highly creative mind, and was ever skeptical of received dogmas.It was one of the real joys and discoveries of my professional life to have known and worked with him.He will be sorely missed and the school will not see his like again.

As a junior faculty also interested in resource economics, I had the good fortune of occupying an office right next to Bob's. We had many long and engaging conversations about our mutual teaching and research interests.  He gave me valuable suggestions when I first entered our school. I had the pleasure to read and comment on his last book project on black carbon.  About 10 days before he passed away, we were still chatting about how he planned to incorporate my comments. Bob was an inspiring colleague.  He was always passionate about this research and policy analysis.  His presence will be missed dearly and may him rest in peace.

I was very sorry to hear about Bob Nelson's sudden passing away. I had a few interactions with him regarding climate change research and he was very interested in learning about econometric approaches. Bob had a nice sense of humor and enjoyed talking about his student days. He was in the same PhD class at Princeton as James Heckman and had a loud laugh reading what I wrote for Heckman's "scrapbook" for his 70th birthday:Jim Heckman is devoted to the cause of advancement of science and public policy. While he is often critical of other researchers, he can also be very harsh on himself. I recall editing a special issue of the Journal of Econometrics entitled "Analysis of data on health: 2" that was published in 2003. I had invited Jim to comment on the article by Adams et al. (2003) where another Nobel Laureate, Dan McFadden, was the leading author. Jim made some penetrating criticisms but was not very happy with the flow of his arguments. So he submitted his comment and advised me to "reject it if it is not good enough"! The comment was very perceptive and it would have been very unfortunate if I had followed Jim's advice!

I will so miss Bob. I will so miss my many, many friendly arguments with him about abolishing the Forest Service (a bad idea even after my daughter left a 10-year career there for The Nature Conservancy), about turning over the national forests to the states (a potential disaster for backpackers once gerrymandered state legislatures take control), and about holding a referendum in California to turn itself into five separate states (an undesirable way to make critical and irreversible public policy decisions, as in Brexit). I also was in awe of Bob's so many interests and persistence in reading and digesting so much information. Herman Daly has already praised Bob's understanding of Christan theology. (Two days before Bob died, I had downloaded and read Bob's latest paper titled "Economic Religion" after Bob sent me the link.) I want to refer Bob's mourners to his 2005 scholarly, exhaustive and important book written for the Urban Institute, "Private Neighborhoods and the Transformation of Local Government." Finally, I will just miss Bob's friendly presence in the halls of our School of Public Policy.

I neglected to mention that Bob was a moderate conservative and succeeded in bringing two prominent conservatives to the School as part of the Policy Forum referred to by Chris Foreman. These were Steven Moore, now (or then) on the Wall Street Journal editorial board, and the late William Niskanen, former long-time Director of the Cato Institute and Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers during the Reagan Administration. They brought policy perspectives to the School that unfortunately we now rarely hear at our School.

 I learned about the sad news today. Prof. Nelson was my advisor when I was pursuing graduate education at Maryland between 2001-2009. While I was working on my dissertation, he never forgot to send me interesting articles every now and then, which was his way of prodding students and helping them overcome procrastination. Later, with his encouragement and help, I developed my dissertation into a book and had it published in the US. We have maintained frequent communication even after I returned to China, and I continue to benefit from him on many issues. Among other things, he was still sending me interesting articles from time to time. As such a thoughtful and prolific author, he definitely deserves to be read by a wider audience. I have recently finished an adapted Chinese version of his 2015 book God? Very Probably, targeting a general Chinese audience interested in the fundamental question of how we become what we are. Hopefully it will receive some public attention from here in China. I will miss him.     

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