Economics and ecology combine at UGA in NSF-funded study of evolutionary game theory

11/02/04

University of Georgia economics professor Don Keenan and Pejman Rohani, an assistant professor with UGA's Institute of Ecology, have been awarded a $100,000 research grant from the National Science Foundation for their proposal, "On Long-Term Consequences of Selfish Behavior: A Game Theoretic Approach to Host-Pathogen Co-evolution."

The cross-campus partnership was aided by Matt Bonds, who completed his Ph.D. in economics from UGA's Terry College of Business last year and is now pursuing an additional graduate degree in ecology.

"The collaboration between Pejman, Matt and I began because of Matt finishing up his Ph.D. in economics and beginning one in ecology, which this project will presumably constitute," said Keenan. "We think that there should be much more opportunity for collaborative work between the two fields of ecology and economics."

NSF's funding of the proposal kicks in this year and lasts for two academic years. "The grants are quite competitive and rather prestigious, so I am very pleased that we received it," added Keenan.

In fact, the NSF receives about 40,000 competitive requests for funding each year. In the category for which Keenan and Rohani applied, only about 5 percent of the applications are awarded funding. As an independent federal agency, NSF supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering, with an annual budget exceeding $5.5 billion.

Keenan has a research background in the area of game theory, which he said was originally developed to study the conscious interaction of "rational" agents. "For instance, it would be the preferred economic method for studying how two firms might compete with one another in the marketplace," said Keenan. "There is, however, a newer branch, called evolutionary game theory, which is useful in biology."

"Our work will apply game theory to the conflict between that most rational of creatures humans and the viruses causing human disease, such as AIDS. While not outwardly rational, viruses mutate and reproduce with alarming speed," he said. "By using an explicitly game theoretic framework, we can simultaneously capture how humans respond to the virility of a disease, and how viruses respond to treating a disease."

"We are then in a position to design better responses to viral diseases, applying the full knowledge of what their 'rational' reaction is likely to be," said Keenan, before adding a final note that the solution technique being applied is the Nash equilibrium, the creation of Nobel Laureate John Nash, who was depicted in the movie, "A Beautiful Mind."

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