Sarah Anderson, Ph.D.

University of California, Santa Barbara

Country: United States (California)

About Me:

Sarah Anderson is an Associate Professor at the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara who studies how the public and politics influences policy. She has three main research agendas: 1) the role of political parties in influencing policy outcomes; 2) the effect of bureaucratic delegation on policy implementation; and 3) the mobilization of the public for environmental action. Her current research focuses on how the public drives agencies’ wildfire prevention and why legislators reject compromise. Those interests are reflected in her experience in Washington, D.C., where she worked as a U.S. congressman's legislative assistant and also researched legislation to brief members of the House National Parks and Public Lands Subcommittee. In addition to a Ph.D. in Political Science from Stanford University, she holds an M.S. in Economics from Stanford University and a B.S. in Political Science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Research Interests

Environmental Policy

Legislative Politics

Political Parties and Interest Groups


Energy And Climate Policy

Public Administration

Public Policy

Specific Areas of Interest



Public Lands

Climate Change

Climate Change Adaptation

State Legislatures

Countries of Interest

United States

My Research:

Environmental problems are very often collective action problems, where individuals do not have sufficient incentive to contribute to solving the problem. As a result, they often require government action to produce solutions. Because governments are composed of institutional structures for aggregating preferences into collective decisions and implementing them, they have the coercive power to redistribute costs and benefits to create sufficiently large coalitions in support of environmental policy. Despite this potential, the policy outputs of democratic governments often do not to reflect the preferences of the majority. Even when a (super)majority favors a policy solution, governments often fail to act.  In short, governments often fail to translate preferences into policy to improve social welfare. The root of this failure lies in 1) the representation behavior of legislators and 2) the implementation process. My work examines these two stages of the policy process to understand when and why governments fail to produce solutions to the pressing problems that society faces.  One of the challenges in this research area is evaluating causality, in large part because it is difficult to observe the drivers of legislator and administrator decisionmaking. Observations of outcomes that seem at odds with public preferences may be due to expertise that allows legislators or administrators to identify technically sound policy or due to self-serving pursuit of reelection or private preferences. Without better data and methods to distinguish between these explanations, we cannot identify effective institutional reforms. My work solves this problem by using unique data and creative analytic methods that allow for measurement of theoretically important factors, while also establishing causality. To understand elite beliefs and decisionmaking, I use new sources of data on elites, including surveys and survey experiments (e.g., Anderson, Butler, and Harbridge Yong, 2019, Rejecting Compromise; Anderson, Butler and Harbridge, 2014, Legislative Studies Quarterly), qualitative interviews (e.g., Anderson, Hodges, and Anderson, 2013, Journal of Policy Analysis & Management; Anderson, Buntaine, Liu, and Zhang, 2019, American Journal of Political Science), and administrative data (e.g., Wibbenmeyer, Anderson, and Plantinga, 2019, Economic Inquiry; Anderson and Harbridge, 2010, Public Administration Review). To distinguish the causal pathways, I employ methods not frequently used for these topics, including field experiments (e.g., Anderson, Buntaine, Liu, and Zhang, 2019, American Journal of Political Science; Hock, Anderson, and Potoski, 2013, Public Administration Review), modeling the variance of agency decisions (Anderson and Potoski, 2016, Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory), and leveraging exogenous natural variation to understand social phenomena (e.g., Wibbenmeyer, Anderson, and Plantinga, 2019, Economic Inquiry). As a result, my work has provided new insights on how legislative representation of segments of the public can prevent progress on solving societal problems and on why agencies produce policy outcomes inconsistent with public priorities.