Citation Laureates: Energy Science and the Economics of Happiness – transcript

Ideas to Innovation - Season Two


Daniel G. Nocera: So I think it means some of the science we’re doing is useful to others and that makes me happy.

Andrew Oswald: When a few of us began working on the study of human happiness, all our economist colleagues thought that was completely crazy.  

Intro: Ideas to Innovation from Clarivate.

Neville Hobson: Recognition of the research carried out by experts in various fields of science takes many forms, including the highest accolade – winning a Nobel Prize.

For more than 20 years, Clarivate has been running a program known as Citation Laureates. These are influential researchers whose work is recognized to be ‘of Nobel class’, as demonstrated by analysis carried out by the Institute for Scientific Information or ISI, part of Clarivate. An exceptionally high citation record is a mark of a researcher’s influence, not only within the scientific community but also far beyond. It’s worth noting that 71 highly-cited Citation Laureates named by the ISI have gone on to receive a Nobel Prize.

Hello, and welcome to Ideas to Innovation Season 2. I’m Neville Hobson. In 2022, Clarivate named 20 world-class researchers from four countries as Citation Laureates. The impact of their work is immense and also represents pioneering research worthy of recognition and celebration. We expect that some of these researchers will go on to receive a Nobel Prize, demonstrating once again the strong link between their substantial citation records and their influence on peers. In episode 6 of this podcast season, published in October, we heard from two of the 2022 Citation Laureates about their work. In this episode, we hear from two more who share insights into their work, how they got started, tips for early-career researchers, and more.

Our first Citation Laureate is Daniel G. Nocera, Patterson Rockwood Professor of Energy, Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the United States. Widely recognized as a leading researcher in renewable energy, Professor Nocera is the inventor of the artificial leaf and the bionic leaf. He has accomplished the solar fuels process of photosynthesis – the splitting of water to hydrogen and oxygen using light from neutral water, at atmospheric pressure and room temperature. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and the Indian Academy of Sciences. He was named one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World by Time Magazine and was 11th on the New Statesman’s list on the same topic. His Citation Laureate award is for fundamental experimental and theoretical contributions to proton-coupled electron transfer, or PCET, and its application to energy science and biology.

We asked Professor Nocera how it feels to be named a Citation Laureate. He said he was honored as it means people are reading his research.

Daniel G. Nocera: I’ve always been under the impression, and I always try to impress this upon my students – I don’t care what journal it’s in, if it’s important, people will read it and they’ll use it. I think what this award says is that people, no matter where we publish – I think there’s too much emphasis on what journal you publish in versus what you publish, and then how useful it is.

So I think it means some of the science we’re doing is useful to others and that makes me happy.

Neville: The effects of the energy crisis of the late 1970s that saw fuel shortages and long lines at gasoline stations in the United States, Europe and elsewhere was the catalyst for sparking Professor Nocera’s interest in energy research.

Daniel G. Nocera: I was just deciding to go to graduate school in chemistry and by the time I got into graduate school, it was “over”. But it got me interested in energy.

Then I started doing simple calculations and realized that the problem was around to stay, that it wasn’t really over at the beginning of the 1980s. So I started my career worrying about the energy problem. Nobody else was – it was always depressing, there were no meetings to go to, everybody was doing organometallic catalysis, and I never could find a home for a meeting.

But finally, the world came around – I knew it would, it was obvious to me. I just kept on my track of doing science for energy and now it’s become popular.

People started realizing how fragile the energy game was, and then people started realizing, maybe we should get off of a fossil fuel-based infrastructure. It’s really only a 20-year-old problem right now. Of course, it’s growing, growing, growing. It is the problem in my mind for humanity right now, which is climate change. But it’s a recent problem. This growth that you’re watching is going to just keep increasing in the field.

Neville: When we asked the Professor what has influenced him the most in his career, his answer wasn’t what we expected.

Daniel G. Nocera: This is going to sound a little strange, but the poor – now we’re going to go from the science to the bigger picture. If you start looking at energy, what you’re going to find out is that most of the energy needs are going to come from the poor of the world. That set a different metric for us because the poor don’t have a big infrastructure to work in. We do. You are living in a multi mega trillion-dollar infrastructure that moves energy. When you get to the poor, they are in villages and there’s nothing there.

So that set a different science metric for us, saying, what could you use around yourself to create energy and energy storage?

For us that was sunlight, air, and water. That set a course with not a person, but a group, the poor. How do I make fuels? How do I make fertilizer? How do I make vitamins from just sunshine, air, and water? Once that clarity set into our heads, that target opened up a huge number of science problems that we then began studying.

That was very influential.

Then as we were moving along, you meet people who also were very helpful. One was Mr. Tata, Ratan Tata of India. He was watching what we were doing and he was very supportive of us. Mr. Tata owns the Tata empire in India. Locally in the U.S. it was Tom Steyer and Kat Taylor, who are environmentalists and climate activists. They helped fuel our research for this idea of, how do you give energy to the poor.

Those were the groups of people that influenced my research the most.

Neville: What Daniel Nocera has learned from a long career in science research gives him keen insight into the challenges and opportunities that will confront early-career researchers today. What advice does he offer?

Daniel G. Nocera: The people that you look at to emulate, a lot of times there’s a long history where the story developed. You want to start your own story and it’s not going to happen instantaneously.

What I did do is, in the back of my head I always have this picture – I need to do sustainable energy.

Then it evolved for a resource-limited environment like the poor live in. And that happened years ago. So as I was publishing all my papers, that sat in the back of my head. You don’t realize it, but then your research starts moving that way because you just stay true to that theme or focus.

When you’re starting out young, you can have that focus, the big picture, but you don’t need to solve it immediately. You have a course of a career. As long as you keep that focus and there’s clarity to that focus, you’ll find out, anybody young as they get older and start looking back, that they actually accomplished a lot of those goals.

So don’t have too big of an appetite up front. Learn something deeply, and then with that deep knowledge, with a vision in the future, it will all work out for you.


Intro: Ideas to Innovation from Clarivate.

Neville: In our second spotlight on Citation Laureates in this episode, we hear from Andrew Oswald, Professor of Economics and Behavioural Science at the University of Warwick in England.

Professor Oswald is a highly-cited researcher by the ISI. He has been a professorial fellow of the Economic and Social Research Council. He is currently a member of the board of reviewing editors of Science. His Citation Laureate award is for pioneering contributions to the economics of happiness and subjective well-being.

And how does he feel about his recognition as a Citation Laureate?

Andrew Oswald: It feels pretty good to be a so-called Citation Laureate. I imagine it would for anyone. I suppose I was surprised when I had the contact, although I had heard somewhat about the concept. But yes, who wouldn’t be cheery about it?

Neville: In a career that began as a conventional economist, Professor Oswald embraced economics research early in his career, influenced by events such as inflation and unemployment that he saw growing up in the 1970s.

Andrew Oswald: I suppose I’ve been a researcher of one kind or another for almost half a century now, which is a shock to me, even as I say it.

So I was always concerned to try to do work that really focused on the things that regular people care about in their lives. Later on, I got interested in what’s now called the economics of happiness. That took me partly into the mental health literature.

By now, rather to my surprise, I’ve published in lots of natural sciences journals and other kinds of journals I never dreamt that I would publish in. But when you work on the topic of human happiness, of course, you can approach that from many different angles, and I think that’s partly why I’ve ended up publishing in a variety of places.

Neville: While Professor Oswald isn’t quite sure what actually sparked his interest in economics research, he’s very clear on the subject that drew him into it.

Andrew Oswald: It was certainly the case that, if you’re going to think as a social scientist about what people really care about, why wouldn’t you be extremely interested in happiness?

As a young PhD student, I was heavily discouraged from studying human feelings. I know that might sound strange to a regular citizen, and I’ve come to believe that was a great mistake. But at Oxford in the PhD program, and much more generally around the world, economists didn’t approve of thinking about human feelings.

It took me a while to shake that off, but eventually I decided – and I should stress, this was early work done with my colleagues, Andrew Clark now in Paris and David Blanchflower now in Dartmouth in the US – we were drawn in by the centrality of: what could be more interesting and important than understanding, as economists, what are the economic forces and other forces that shape human happiness?

Neville: While Professor Oswald doesn’t think of himself as having been inspired by particular people, he says he’s certainly been drawn to individuals, and he greatly respects them.

Andrew Oswald: I suppose if there was one person who’s inspired my professional work, it would be Dick Easterlin, a professor at the University of Southern California, a little bit older than me, still going strong. He’s much to be admired and a delightful man. I’ve learned a lot from him. In particular, I’ve been impressed by the way he has forged ahead, studying the very important topic of human happiness despite, especially for him, a lot of criticism along the way. That greatly impresses me.

Beyond that, I’ve been inspired by a lot of scientific figures: Richard Doll, one of the early people who discovered around 1950 the link between smoking and cancer; a woman called Eunice Newton Foote, who very possibly in the 1850s was the first scholar to uncover the so-called greenhouse effect – although, because she was a female, her work was ignored for 100 years. In her era, she wasn’t allowed to read scientific papers to the American academy, a man had to do it for her. So these kinds of figures I view as inspiring.

Neville: Offering some tips for early career researchers, he starts with an impassioned plea: be resilient! 

Andrew Oswald: I’m quite often asked what advice I would give to younger researchers. One thing to say is that when I was a young researcher, to be perfectly honest, I didn’t want much advice. I’m willing to return the compliment to the younger generation of researchers.

I suppose, one thing I’ve come to believe, that might sound strange is, if everybody likes your work, you can be certain that you haven’t done anything important.

And the key thing there – although I learned the hard way, no one ever gave me that idea – the key point is that the only way we move forward is by upsetting senior professors who would much sooner that you stuck to whatever they discovered in their era.

So I would recommend to all young researchers interested in the field I’ve worked on, do your best to upset me and make me grumpy because we’re going to need something like that to press ahead beyond the kinds of knowledge that I, and my different kinds of colleagues, have come across.

So being resilient in the face of criticism and sticking to your own guns – that seems to me terribly important.

Neville: And he offers an insightful explainer on things that matter and what computes today.

Andrew Oswald: Work on what you think are really big topics. When a few of us began working on the study of human happiness, all our economist colleagues thought that was completely crazy.

Of course, that wasn’t a sensible reaction because what could be more important than happiness? It just wasn’t something that many researchers thought you could study. If you work on things that matter, then eventually the world will catch up.

That would be my second point.

Beyond that, just the very best of luck. It’s tough out there, I must say.

In case you don’t know the story, in 1993, a young man Andrew Clark and I ran a conference at the London School of Economics called ‘The Economics of Happiness’ and put posters all over the London School of Economics, and as an approximation, nobody came. Just nobody. It didn’t compute, you see – it just didn’t compute.

So that’s the way it is. Now it does compute and it’s popular.

Neville: Two more of our Citation Laureates of 2022 sharing their insights with us. We give our thanks to Professors Daniel Nocera and Andrew Oswald. Their research has not only been foundational in their fields, but also continues to evolve and expand in ways that may touch our everyday lives.

For detailed information about all of the Citation Laureates and their work, and about the program itself, visit clarivate dot com slash citation dash laureates.

Season 2 of Ideas to Innovation continues with our next episode in a few weeks time: visit clarivate dot com slash podcasts for information.

Thanks for listening!