Please tell us something about your background.
There is a saying that people want others to believe that they grew up in a log cabin they built themselves, that they are entirely self-made. Not so for me – I couldn’t have been luckier. I grew up in Nijmegen, a beautiful city in the Netherlands, surrounded by a loving and supportive family, true friends, and an exciting set of opportunities to explore.
My dream was to become an architect. Together with friends, I would draw for days on end and even participated in architectural contests, some of which we won (imagine the surprise when the judges discovered we were still in primary school). Architecture is in part about aesthetics, but what fascinated me is that it is also about the art and science of creating a framework for our lives, opening possibilities or hampering them.
I view the role of law in society in much the same way, and that motived my decision to specialise in this field. By their example, my parents taught me to think of others – to help people down the street and around the world. I was keen to do so, and felt that studying economics, politics, and law would offer the right tools. Initially, law interested me the least: it seemed doctrinal and zero-sum. Spending time at Berkeley made me realise that the opposite is the case: at its best, law is the arena where economics and politics come together to gain traction. I have maintained that multidisciplinary, functional view of the law.
What led you to a career in academia?
My multidisciplinary and functional perspective of law led me to the cutting-edge MSc in Law and Finance (MLF) at Oxford. Although a career in law, finance, or government interested me, by that time entering academia had become my dream.
It was not easy to get there. As hard as it is to make it into DPhil programmes, it is even harder to get funding. This challenge will be familiar to many. I have always had multiple jobs and scholarships to finance my studies, and then still fell way short. Only when I was awarded a Clarendon Scholarship did those obstacles start to clear. I know how fortunate I have been, and am aware that many face even more daunting financial circumstances. That is why, if we want Oxford to be a place of opportunity for all, we have to continue to increase scholarships – especially for those who need them most.
There are, of course, many versions of academia. While large parts of the academy are committed to the pure pursuit of knowledge, there are many who take a more direct role in society. My approach to academia is one of action-oriented thinking, which translates into impact through research, teaching, and engagement with what is happening in the world.
What are your research interests, and why those areas?
Many of today’s most vexing problems are the result of externalities: costs or benefits that are generated by our activity but not priced. Think of a factory that pollutes the environment without having to pay for it, or a bakery that spreads the delicious scent of bread but is not compensated. In the presence of externalities, the market system produces too much of the bad (pollution) and too little of the good (the smell of fresh bread).
This problem manifests itself in many guises and at large scales. In 2007, banks took on too much risk and put the whole economy at risk (so I work on financial stability). At an even bigger scale, human activity is on the verge of irreversibly changing our climate and destroying biodiversity. This would hurt all of us – but the most vulnerable will be hit the hardest. Changing course will require a fundamental economic transition, which in turn requires unprecedented investment. Legal interventions can set the stage for such investments – making it more costly to ignore climate risks and easier to grasp climate opportunities. Through my work in this field, I hope to contribute to the sustainability transition.
What are you working on at the moment?
It’s a full plate. Let me highlight two items. To start with, we are working flat out (in the MLF team and more generally) to deliver the best possible educational experience under difficult circumstances.
Otherwise, my focus is on launching an incredibly exciting new programme: the Oxford Sustainable Law Programme, a collaboration between the Faculty of Law and the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment.
We are still working towards a formal launch, so I cannot share too much yet. But here is the teaser: we believe that the law can be a valuable tool to accelerate the sustainability transition and want to leverage that potential in novel ways. To be most effective, we have to think about the law in broad terms (not only environmental law, but also tax law, corporate law, financial regulation), collaborate across disciplines (economics, finance, geosciences, mathematics), and engage proactively with practitioners in the public, private, and non-profit sector.
Although the programme is still in its early stages, it has already attracted widespread support and enthusiasm within the University and beyond. We have brought together a world-leading team (still growing!), raised our first pilot funding, and have started work on projects together with outside partners. I will stop here – for now. Interested colleagues and students can of course reach out if they want to know more.
What charities and causes do you support, and why?
I am passionate about supporting social mobility through education, and am a particular believer in the power of debate. While in high school, debating opened my eyes and mind. It teaches you to rapidly synthesise information, formulate and articulate a view, and carefully listen to and consider other points of view. These are life-changing skills. Over the past 10 years, I have worked closely with a Dutch charity that provides debate-based education to thousands of students each year. I am very proud of their work.
A look at health statistics, and in my case unfortunately also the loss of loved ones, reveals immediately that we do not pay enough attention to mental health. We urgently have to treat it for what it is: on par with physical health. Here at Oxford, that challenge is also acute amongst our students, especially in these testing times. Because part of my role is about mentoring students, that is a responsibility I take personally. I also support charities that work to deliver better mental healthcare, both preventative and treatment-based. My partner is a psychologist, and she has opened my eyes to the amazing and much-needed opportunities in this space.
Thom Wetzer is an Associate Professor of Law and Finance. He tweets about his work @ThomWetzer.