Shachar Kariv: ‘This place is different’

Shachar Kariv

Shachar Kariv

Shachar Kariv, professor of economics

“This place is different” is the point Shachar Kariv keeps circling back to as he explains why he’s turned down three efforts to hire him away from Berkeley over the last several years.

He’s not talking about all the “quirky” things that sometimes seem to define Berkeley in the eyes of others. He’s talking about things like the Behavior Change Research Network, which brings together researchers in economics, business, psychology and public health to pursue novel approaches to the study of behavior change — whether it’s related to eating, driving, making financial decisions or any other issue that bears on well-being.

As faculty director of the XLab, used by social science researchers all over campus to run computer-based experiments, Kariv took notice when national health-research funders recently intensified their interest in human behavior as an avenue for disease prevention. XLab researchers worked on behavioral change, but the lab’s set-up wasn’t the right one to explore the new federal research focus because the researchers “don’t talk to each other.”

In response, Kariv and colleagues from the School of Public Health and the Department of Psychology saw an opportunity to create something new. They came together and formed a research network to apply for grants to fund three or four postdoc positions to support studies across disciplines. Their deans were quick to fund the effort.

Less than a year after the idea was first conceived, the network was up and running and already had three to four postdocs hard at work.

“Google, good high-tech companies, promote innovation and entrepreneurship within the company,” Kariv says. “The environment of Berkeley promotes exactly the same kind of entrepreneurship.”

A more recent idea sent Kariv and colleagues from transportation engineering back to the deans for money to develop a way to piggyback on GPS-capable smartphones as a tool of social science, to gather and analyze commute information about large numbers of people.

 “I strongly believe this is the kind of startup that can become (a game-changer) like Facebook. It can really change the way we do social sciences.”

The deans came through with $60,000. Anywhere but Berkeley, says Kariv, “the dean is going to look at you and say, ‘Are you crazy?’ Whenever you come with a creative and good suggestion here, there is the money.”

Xmobile is rolling forward fast, with additional funding from CITRIS, a prototype built and an experiment involving where people buy their food expected to start this semester.

When Kariv received successive outside offers from other universities, Berkeley responded financially, with a salary increase and access to a university mortgage program. He wanted to stay; he’d been treated well as a young professor, and his family liked it here. But the cost of living, with three kids and school to worry about, was a problem.

Still, Kariv says, it was the other dimensions, beyond family finances, that proved persuasive.

 “I negotiated for the things that I thought are important,” he says. Funding for XLab, whose experiments he sees as one way Berkeley contributes to the public good, for example.

At Berkeley, he says, those conversations are better and easier than anywhere else. “The difference between what happens elsewhere and what happens here is just unbelievable.

“This is a different institution.”