Happier Than Ever

Wellbeing has become an important topic for researchers and politicians. Measuring wellbeing enriches the discussion of what determines a good life.

Until recently, gross domestic product (GDP) was the only welfare indicator of a nation. But it has been criticised as a comprehensive indicator: first, because it underestimates many factors, such as the value of having a job or good health; and second, because it does not take account of such factors as income inequality, quality of education, environmental status and voluntary work.

 

Photo/Credit: Jan-Otto/iStock.com

People at the beach of St.Peter-Ording in Germany. Photo/Credit: Jan-Otto/iStock.com

 

Measuring Wellbeing

 For a rigorous analysis of wellbeing, it is important to use a representative longitudinal survey that covers a variety of demographic, economic, social and personal characteristics. A common way to measure wellbeing is to simply ask the question: How satisfied are you with your life, all things considered? Please answer on a scale from 0 to 10, where 0 means completely dissatisfied and 10 means completely satisfied.

This scale is used by many major surveys, such as the German Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP) and the World Value Survey (WVS). The 11-point scale is often transformed into three categories: high satisfaction (8, 9 or 10 points); medium satisfaction (3-7 points); and dissatisfaction (0,1 or 2 points). This is a simplification of the symmetric scale that my colleagues and I use in our research.

 

Wellbeing in Germany

Wellbeing in Germany is now at its highest level since reunification in 1999. In the latest representative SOEP survey from 2015, 55% of German residents said that they are very satisfied with their life in general. Only 2% were not satisfied and the remaining 43% reported medium satisfaction with their life.

On average, reported life satisfaction was 7.28 in 2015. Ten years earlier, in 2005, the comparable figure was 6.84 and in 1995, it was 6.86. This positive trend has arisen because substantially fewer Germans report being dissatisfied. At the same time, the fraction of Germans that perceive themselves as very happy has remained constant across the decades. The positive shift results in lower variance: in other words, there is less inequality in the distribution of life satisfaction across the population.

 

The Reasons: Economic and Social Improvements

 What are the reasons for the 6.4% increase in Germans’ average life satisfaction between 2005 and 2015? The three most important impact factors for a good life are employment, health and social interaction (number of friends, marriage and so on) – and all three of these factors have improved over the past two decades.

The unemployment rate has reached an all-time low since reunification: just over two and a half million people are unemployed today, whereas in 2005, the number of unemployed people was nearly twice as high with about five million people searching for a job. Life expectancy has also increased, including among people on lower incomes. In addition, the digital transformation has simplified social interactions and the divorce rate has decreased.

 

Correlation but Not Necessarily Causation

While noting these changes in employment, health and social interaction, it is very important to understand that causal evidence is rare when analysing wellbeing. Nearly all findings on wellbeing represent correlations only and no causal evidence.

For example it is not feasible to find out whether marriage makes people happy. There are at least two potential explanations for the fact that married people are happier; one is that happier people find a partner more easily; the other is that marriage improves happiness. It is hard to find evidence that makes it possible to discriminate between these explanations.

Germany’s Monetary Mythology: Central Bank Independence and Crafting the Past

Financial district in Frankfurt, Germany. Photo/Credit: fotoVoyager/iStock.com

Financial district in Frankfurt, Germany. Photo/Credit: fotoVoyager/iStock.com

 

The job of a central bank is to ‘take away the punch bowl just when the party gets going,’ as William McChesney Martin, an American central banker, once quipped. In other words, the central bank should raise interest rates to rein in the economy before things get out of hand.

This is not always a popular job – and some central banks have done it better than others. Think of the Deutsche Bundesbank, for instance, which celebrated its sixtieth birthday at the start of this month. West Germany’s central bank was among the most successful in the post-war fight against inflation.

Indeed, we have long since reached the stage where the image of the Bundesbank has become a caricature. The German central banker: conservative, independent and not a smile to be seen. To be sure, if there were a punch bowl at a party, the German central banker would be the first to confiscate it.

Reputation is a priceless asset in the world of central banking. Credibility matters. How can we explain the Bundesbank’s reputation? Statistics are important, of course. The Bundesbank ensured that Germany experienced lower inflation rates than its trading partners, boosting the country’s competitiveness and prosperity. Such success breeds reputation.

But can numbers explain everything? Well, no. Another important factor can be history – or, at least a certain version of history. Germans, so the story goes, have long been scarred by the traumatic experience of inflation in 1920s: ever since, they have been dead set against inflation and for an independent central bank.

So no wonder the Bundesbank has been so successful fighting rising prices. The German central banker is motivated by the powerful example of his or her history.

But hold on a second. This picture is a little too neat – and there are some holes in the story. For example, Germany is not the only European country to have experienced a hyperinflation during the twentieth century. A bunch of others, including Poland and Hungary, have endured them. Yet it is only Germany that places price stability at the top of its list of economic priorities, ostensibly because of its traumatic history. What makes the German inflation so special?

To understand why Germany’s political culture is so fixated on inflation, we need to focus less on the hyperinflation itself and more on what happens afterwards. This is where approaches of cultural history – and my research – come in.

Put more precisely, we need to examine how the country’s monetary history became caught up in a post-war power struggle over the direction of monetary policy between the central bank, on the one hand, and the federal government, on the other.

The lessons stemming from Germany’s experience of inflation became politicised and mobilised into arguments in support of – and against – the need for central bank independence.

Wait, against? Contrary to popular belief, central bank independence was a controversial issue in 1949, the year in which the West German state was established. It was controversial because the Reichsbank, Germany’s central bank prior to the end of the Second World War, was legally independent of government instruction during both the hyperinflation and deflation. That is a historical fact – and it is one that is often forgotten.

In part this is because, today, we tend to associate independent central banks with economic stability, not instability. After all, that is what (most of) the post-war period teaches us. In 1949, however, that association was a far tougher sell. It was not a given. So the link between central bank independence and economic stability had to be carefully crafted, using select examples taken from Germany’s inter-war history, with other, more inconvenient facts shoved to the side.

Both supporters and opponents of central bank independence reverted to historical lessons amid efforts to influence the provisions in the Bundesbank Law, a crucial piece of legislation that established the post-war Bundesbank as we know it today.

Historical narratives of Germany’s past were forged amid this struggle for power – and in the end, those lobbying for central bank independence won the day.

Crucially, however, the Bundesbank Law itself reaffirmed this powerful struggle over monetary policy. In providing for a central bank that was independent of political instruction, the law made it highly likely that conflicts between the central bank and government would become ‘dramatised’ and spill into the public sphere.

These public controversies often centred on central bank independence. It was in these very episodes that the lessons of Germany’s experience of inflation became relevant yet again, geared in support of central bank independence.

Some historical experiences are more useful than others. A post-war institutional power struggle, one that centred on monetary policy, made Germany’s history of inflation more relevant for future generations of West Germans. Contemporary political disputes were treated in distinctly historical terms. An institutional struggle helped to foster this cultural preoccupation with inflation. That is what has made the German inflation so special – and so consequential – as opposed to those experienced by other countries.

Reputation is a priceless thing in the world of central banking – and it is even more powerful when a central bank has the right kind of history, or story, backing it. ‘The past is never dead’, the novelist William Faulkner once wrote: ‘It’s not even past.’ In the post-war era, Germany’s monetary history became a political football – and it remains one to this day.

Is the Paris Agreement on Climate Change ‘Bad for Business’?

Concerns are growing about the impact of climate change on macroeconomic and financial stability. Researchers, policy-makers and other stakeholders are trying to calculate the costs of climate change – and also whether there are potential opportunities from global warming.

Many see the costs in term of the economic losses from natural disasters associated with climate change. There is a considerable body of research estimating these costs of the physical risks of climate change. But the financial costs potentially go far beyond that, notably as a result of the risks from climate policy.

Growing public awareness of climate change has led many countries to emphasise the importance of ‘turning down the heat‘, aiming to keep global warming to no more than two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. This ultimately resulted in the 2015 agreement made in Paris within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The Paris agreement seeks to mitigate the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change, in particular by encouraging ‘fossil fuel divestment’. Climate policies that are being implemented to achieve that ambition include the European Union’s emissions trading system and carbon taxes – fees imposed on the burning of carbon-based fuels such as coal, oil and gas.

Risks from these policies arise from the fact that some financial assets will have to be re-evaluated: for example, firms in the fossil fuel sector will lose their value, while renewable energy firms will rise in value. Financial market participants that own shares in these firms need to know their exposure to climate-sensitive sectors of the economy.

It is important to note that while the physical risks of climate change are difficult to avoid, climate policy risks can be evaluated and diminished if recognised early enough. The crucial questions for policy-makers and the public are first, what are the costs of the transition to a low-carbon economy (‘decarbonisation’); and second, how can the costs of climate change be transformed into opportunities?

 

A Coal-fired power plant, solar energy and windmills. Photo/Credit: rclassenlayouts/iStock.com

What are the costs of a transition to a low-carbon economy? Photo/Credit: rclassenlayouts/iStock.com

 

Research Evidence

As the inevitable process of decarbonisation gathers speed, more and more financial institutions are becoming concerned with climate policy risks. Many banks, insurance companies and pension funds are recognising the need to ‘stress-test’ their asset portfolios for their resilience to climate policy.

It is important to highlight that shocks imposed on the financial system as a result of climate policy risks are not necessarily negative: they can also be positive and could boost the economy. Financial institutions are interested in finding the best portfolio of assets for the transition to a low-carbon economy.

Several global initiatives are seeking to estimate the costs and gains for the economy on the path to decarbonisation. One example is the Financial Stability Board of the G20, which has launched a Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosure, aiming to give firms the incentives to disclose publicly their climate-relevant information and thereby help investors create a sustainable portfolio.

Another example is a Green Finance Study Group, launched under China’s G20 presidency with the support of the Bank of England and proposing to address the challenges of achieving a climate-friendly economic and financial system. Both initiatives have lead to wider awareness of the issue and are working towards a deeper understanding and the development of appropriate measures.

The question of climate-related exposure is also being addressed at the national and regional level. For example, the Carbon Bubble project, commissioned by Germany’s environmental agency, is creating tools for investors to evaluate their climate-related risks for all important asset classes and sectors. Several central banks have conducted analyses of climate stress testing, and the European Commission recently published the interim report of its high-level expert group on sustainable finance.

Most of the proposed new stress-testing methodologies focus on the direct exposure of individuals, firms, pension funds or banks to climate policy risks. But it is also important to consider ‘counterparty climate policy risks’. For example, a pension fund wanting to invest in low-carbon firms might find that the investment fund it uses has a ‘brown’ portfolio rather than a ‘green’ one. This is an illustration of so-called second-round effects.

One recent climate stress test proposes a methodology to take account of second-round effects. By analysing the listed equity holdings of firms, the analysis shows that such effects can amplify positive and negative shocks caused by climate policy and, therefore, could decrease the accuracy of climate policy risk estimations.

Despite growing interest in methodologies for assessing climate-related financial risks, as yet there are no estimates of the magnitude of the exposure of the euro area to climate policy risks. Building on the recently proposed climate stress test methodology, our research is trying to estimate the monetary value of gains and losses for the euro area on the path to decarbonisation.

Taking account of various channels of exposures between euro area governments and financial institutions, our preliminary estimates show that the most exposed to climate-sensitive sectors of the economy are governments, investment funds, insurance companies and pension funds, while banks have relatively little exposure.

 

Future Challenges for Research and Policy Action

There are many open issues associated with estimating monetary exposure to climate change. First, there is no standardised economic classification for firms that would allow easy estimation of their climate sensitivity; and second, there is no financial transparency that would make it possible to calculate the costs of climate change and, in particular, take account of second-round effects. New policies need to be introduced to resolve these issues.

Finally, not everyone supports the Paris agreement, notably the American president who said during his election campaign that ‘the climate change deal is bad for business.’ Is this really true?

Preliminary findings of our research show that it is not the case. The actual exposure to fossil fuels is small for the euro area and the exposure to climate-sensitive sectors is about 50 percent, which could be both a loss and an opportunity.

Research estimating the extent of climate change effects on business continues and there are many issues to be resolved. But it is widely realised that change is inevitable and society needs to be better prepared for it. With further research on well-defined paths to decarbonisation, safe asset allocation and climate-related financial disclosure, it will be possible to tackle climate change and ‘make our planet great again.’

Why Finance Ministers Prefer Carbon Taxes

‘In Germany, there is massive under-investment in infrastructure’, warns Joachim Käppner of the Süddeutsche Zeitung, one of the country’s most read daily newspapers. He continues: ‘[schools], streets and bridges are crumbling. In Germany, investments of more than 100 billion euros are needed.’ Economists Pedro Bom and Jenny Ligthart confirm Käppner’s warning in a study showing that there is a shortage of investment in infrastructure almost everywhere.

Why is there such an under-supply? One reason is that finance ministers throughout the world are constrained by tight budgets. Next to the need to repay debt, governments are under pressure to lower corporate tax rates to prevent private capital – and with it jobs – from leaving the country.

With the growing integration of world markets, this has become an increasingly harmful ‘race-to-the-bottom’. The problem of crumbling roads, schools and bridges is thus compounded by the problem of finding sources of public revenue to finance maintenance of existing infrastructure as well as investments in new infrastructure.

 

Photo/Credit: yio/iStock.com

Photo/Credit: yio/iStock.com

 

Carbon taxes can help to solve the problem of tax competition and the under-provision of public goods

 A solution can be found off the beaten track in a study of mine that makes a strong case for green tax reform for the sake of the national budget. My co-authors and I analyse how governments should reform their tax system when they find themselves competing for mobile capital and are constrained by tight budgets, but have to finance productive public investments.

Our results show that it is best to lower corporate taxes and instead put a price on the carbon content of fossil resources. That way, the tax system distorts the economy less while raising higher revenues. If the additional revenues are then invested to increase productivity – for example, in education and infrastructure – everyone is better off.

In short: It’s better to tax ‘bads’ instead of ‘goods’. Protecting the environment and stimulating the economy can go hand in hand.

What explains this result? At first glance, both kinds of tax seem to harm the economy in a similar fashion. Both increase the costs for businesses, potentially encouraging the private sector to react by moving part of its activities abroad.

But a carbon price has the decisive advantage of shifting part of the tax burden away from businesses that produce goods and services, and towards the owners of fossil resources. That way, the carbon price captures the ‘resource rent’ – that portion of a resource owner’s total revenue that is in excess of the costs needed to supply the resource.

When the resource owner’s rent is thus reduced via a carbon tax, resource extraction decisions do not change and there is no adverse impact on the real economy. (The Economist explains rent income using the example of a soccer star’s income.) 

Unless a corporate tax is paid by a monopolist, it cannot capture as much rent as a carbon tax would. This is because businesses in a competitive market have comparably little revenue in excess of their production costs, when we include payments on interest, insurance against risk and managerial activities. Otherwise, high excess revenues would be competed away. 

 

Even if carbon taxes are implemented only for fiscal reasons, they will help to mitigate dangerous climate change

 Now let’s suppose that finance ministers actually implement our suggested tax reform and succeed in balancing their budgets. Is there not a danger that resource owners will anticipate higher carbon taxes in the future and accelerate extraction? Might carbon taxes then actually harm the environment due to an increase in emissions?

The answer is a clear no: when carbon taxes are used to finance productive public investments, this will affect both the demand for and supply of fossil resources. With supply, the rate of extraction will not increase because rent taxation has no effect on extraction decisions. Therefore, the demand side will fully determine when and how much of a resource is extracted. For buyers of resources, the price of carbon increases, which lowers demand, postpones extraction and reduces emissions. 

This is not to say that we don’t need a global agreement on climate change. A unilateral fiscal reform that includes a carbon tax will not solve the climate problem just by itself. But when politicians, and finance ministers in particular, understand that green fiscal reforms benefit the whole economy, fiscal considerations can be an entry point for more stringent climate policy.

 

This blog post is based on research reported in ‘Why Finance Ministers Favor Carbon Taxes, Even If They Do Not Take Climate Change into Account’ by Max Franks, Ottmar Edenhofer and Kai Lessmann, published in Environmental and Resource Economics in 2015. The study was recognised as the ‘best overall paper’ at the third annual conference of the Green Growth Knowledge Platform, hosted in partnership with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the OECD and the World Bank.

Society’s Growing Need for Non-Formal Education

Our traditional system of formal education – with a teacher or professor in front of a classroom of passive listeners, backed up with a blackboard and lots of chalk – is becoming increasingly unfit for purpose. It’s generally good at tackling the basic needs of a fairly homogeneous group of people – mainly children and young adults from 6 to 18 with the possibility of ‘extension’ to college or university for those who ‘performed well’ in the first two levels of the system. But today’s world needs so much more.

In a fast-changing society with substantial technological advancements and unlimited global connectedness, lifelong learning has become a necessity, often long after people have left the formal education system. What’s more, the needs of specific groups of people don’t fit well in the current system and should be targeted in different ways.

 

Credit: Lamaip/iStock.com

Photo/Credit: Lamaip/iStock.com

 

As an example, we can think of the immense group of refugees who have arrived in Europe over the last five years with backgrounds ranging from an unfinished high-school education to advanced degrees in engineering, medicine, information technology, languages and so on.

There are also many contemporary challenges – such as migration, global warming, radicalisation and inequality – that are extremely complex and need a holistic and interdisciplinary approach. In turn, this requires very specific combinations of skills and knowledge. But the traditional education system is focused on disciplinary specialisation, rather than interdisciplinary combinations of skill sets.

 

The need for non-formal education

I believe that ‘non-formal education’ is the way to fill the growing gap that results from today’s more advanced and heterogeneous educational needs. Compared with formal education, non-formal education is less focused on the general and overall public needs of large groups in a society. It has been described as a complementary ‘educational activity carried on outside the formal system to provide selected types of learning to particular subgroups in the population, adults as well as children.’

Informal education – which encompasses all acquisition of knowledge, skills and attitudes from any kind of experiences – is an even broader, but also more ambiguous, form of education. Hence, compared with informal education, non-formal education happens in a more organised and structured way.

This distinction is significant, as non-formal education therefore requires a minimal level of resources to support an organisational structure. It can also be applied to focus on a particular group of people or niche activity; and it can be strategically managed in order to reach particular educational goals for such target groups.

Consequently, non-formal education is mainly provided by civil society and/or non-profit service organisations, and it can fill the gap between what is left open by formal education and what is naturally transferred through people’s daily social interactions. Given its organisational structure, it can be actively managed to provide educational solutions for concrete and tangible problems. 

Non-formal education has different functionalities. A major one is participant functionality. This means that non-formal education brings direct benefits for its participants, such as skills, experiences and personal networks.

Non-formal education also has social functionality, as it enables people to engage in society and it provides a platform for discussing and tackling local, regional and global problems. For example, in a study of the global scouts movement, I find that the social functionality of this non-formal educational movement is perceived very differently across countries.

 

Some questions for researchers and practitioners

Starting from the growing gap between the traditional educational system and desirable social outcomes, several questions for researchers and practitioners can guide us to shape the future of non-formal education:

  • First, can a full-scale non-formal education sector exist in addition to the traditional formal education system without both sectors being in too strong competition for the same resources?
  • Second, can both sectors strengthen each other, where the strengths of one sector compensate for the weaknesses of the other? For example, should the ‘efficiency’ of one sector be traded-off against the more adjusted targeting of the advanced and heterogeneous needs of the other sector? Or can accreditation, certification, evaluation of both sectors and the skills acquired in each sector be integrated. A starting point lies in a seminal set of first recommendations.
  • Third, how can non-formal education organisations – which are often operational as non-profit and/or social profit organisations – increase their legitimacy and public reputation to assure long-term resources for their mission and achievements?
  • Fourth, what steps should researchers, funding organisations and policy-makers take to quantify the needs and benefits of non-formal education? More and better data on non-formal education – similar to the PISA efforts for formal education – would be likely to result in more robust scientific insights and better policy recommendations.
  • Finally, how can participants/students improve their short- and long-term wellbeing through combining both educational systems in their lifelong learning path?

Scientists Should Actively Participate in Public Debate

At the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, this year more than in any other year, scientists felt the need to speak up about the way that public policy is intervening in the future of scientific research.

Now, as during other times in our history, we are facing political scientific disbelief and discussion around scientific observations. Notorious predecessors that faced a much harsher fame were Giordano Bruno or Galileo Galilei, whose theories nobody would doubt nowadays.  At the meeting there was enough time for informal chats and public debates around these themes. As a participant of the press talk organised by Deutsche Welle, I brought forward the idea that it is our responsibility, as scientists, to be engaged with society. I would imagine this a bit like in Athens in the old days, when citizens had a say in matters that concerned them. Scientists should be communicators, and they should be responsible for being able to give back to society and to politics –something that is probably expect from us. We organise marathons, cake bake events and many more initiatives to raise money for research, but what do we do next? Do we communicate effectively where the money raised ended up?

 

Melania Zauri and Aurelio Nuño Mayer, Secretary of Education, Mexico, during a Press Talk at the 67th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, Credit: Julia Nimke/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Melania Zauri and Arturo Borja Tamayo, Director of International Cooperation, CONACYT (National Council of Science and Technology), Mexico, during a Press Talk at the 67th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, Credit: Julia Nimke/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

 

Most of the basic and some of the applied research is funded through public money coming from the European Research Council in Europe or the National Institutes of Health in the USA, to name some examples. This means that taxpayers were subject to some form of deductions in their wages to support science. It would be ideal if scientists themselves felt the responsibility to communicate in turn with citizens and funding institutions, because this would foster more collaborations, eventually share the joy for discovery and ultimately even attract more people into science (for example, in a larger citizen science initiative where people see the clear benefit to society by donating part of their time or body, as in clinical research, for the benefit of mankind). Furthermore, funding agencies request more and more that research is communicated to both specialised and non-specialised audiences. Indeed, the public dissemination of science was another strong topic at the Lindau Meeting, which was brought forward by Nobel Laureate Martin Chalfie during his talk. He advocated open access journals and preprint servers. He announced the good news that preprint servers are now, after being already established in biology and physics, also being introduced in the field of chemistry! Among the advantages of preprint servers, he mentioned the universal availability of the research, which helps to expose scientific findings to a larger audience and to communicate it back to society. Specialised science communicators will also have access and can team up with scientists to foster the connection to society.

 

 

Ultimately, every contribution will count, and I was honoured to find, while writing this article, that my views are shared by Nobel Laureate Ada Yonath as she expressed during an interview in 2010. I would like to conclude with her enthusiastic quote: “Society financed this science, if not directly, then the education and the way I got there, so society should get back what I found. […] And as for making contact with the layperson, I think young people, teenagers and those in their early twenties don’t have enough exposure to science; they don’t know what it is. I myself have been working on this for many years – I give lectures at many different events and to different groups.”

A Long Road to Becoming a Chemist

The path to my professional career as a chemist was not easy but constructive and challenging in some ways. I grew up in a small, quiet and traditional town in the state of Mexico Texcoco. Both of my parents had to overcome severe economic difficulties to pursue their own career in biology. Thankfully, I was blessed with their pledge to provide me a good education.

I attended a private school to learn English and because the academic programme was more challenging. During my basic education, I participated in several science and academic contests and I enjoyed the school profoundly. My generation was the first that stayed at home, there were not more chances to play in the streets or the neighbourhood, because of the numerous cars in the streets and the worsening of security. Then, in the middle school, I attended a math workshop where I learned tricks to do arithmetic operations in a flash and to solve math puzzles. With that training, I was selected to participate in Math Counts and the Pierre Fermat contest. Later, I enrolled in the EPT-UAEM public high school and was benefitted with a scholarship. During my last year there, I was invited to train for the regional Chemistry Olympiads. I was selected to continue to the state and furthermore the national contest.  That stage was meaningful for my further decision to study chemistry since I was selected to attend Mexico’s National Olympiad of Chemistry. This privilege implied a strong commitment by means of travelling two hours to the school of Chemistry of UAEM-Mexico to be trained for the competition, and then two hours more for the way back. I travelled with my mother after the school in an old van provided by the principal two or three days a week during some months. We arrived at home almost at midnight, exhausted but enthusiastic about my training and the hopeful support within my family. I valued that experience greatly because other peers and I received fascinating lessons with devoted teachers and scientists.

 

Photo: Courtesy of Ana Torres

Ana Torres in front of the Rudder Fountain on the Texas A&M University campus, Photo: Courtesy of Ana Torres

 

After the enriching experience of attending the national contest and motivated by my teachers I decided to study chemistry in the School of Chemistry of the National Autonomous University of Mexico. So therefore, I spent four hours on a round-trip each day to Mexico City to pursue my bachelor degree. Sometimes I travelled by car with my father before dawn, but other days I had tiring trips in the overcrowded subway and the bus, which arrived in the middle of nowhere, where my parents picked me up. Fortunately, quantum chemistry captivated me and I joined a theoretical research workgroup after I had my first course in that subject area.

One year later, I got my bachelor degree with honours and continued my postgraduate studies in chemistry supported by a grant of the National Council of Science and Technology. Usually, there are very few students willing to pursue a career in Theoretical Chemistry in my program. It is worth mentioning that while I studied, my advisor and other theorists designed the Quantum and Computational Chemistry post-graduate courses – indeed some of the lectures were given for the very first time. Furthermore, at that time I started my own family and I had to organise my time efficiently to get a functional balance between motherhood, research and teaching. Therefore, through family shared efforts, hard-work and passion for science I graduated with honours, gaining the M.Sc. and Ph.D. degrees in chemistry, whereas my son developed a love for math.

 

Ana Torres with her parents, Photo: Courtesy of Ana Toores

Ana Torres with her parents, Socorro Hernandez and Pablo Torres, at the National Autonomus Unviersity of Mexico, Photo: Courtesy of Ana Torres

 

I became a teacher and mentor for undergraduate students just after I got my Master’s degree. Then, for the Ph.D., I moved to the Materials Research Institute where Prof. Serguei Fomine became my advisor. From him I learned a strong discipline of work and a structured way to analyse the chemical problems. This contributed positively since I graduated in less time than my postgraduate program demarked. After I graduated, I was accepted for a postdoctoral position within the group of Prof. Perla Balbuena in Texas A&M University. Thus, I dealt with almost six months of paperwork to get a scholarship and arrange the immigration documentation for my son, my husband and for me. I arrived in the US one month later than the start date of the programme given the migratory issues. At present, I am grateful for the support and academic guidance of Prof. Balbuena and committed to work hard on my research project. My family and I are partaking this opportunity to grow in academic and personal areas and I shall respond to their great effort. Science has opened me the doors to travel to countries abroad and to build collaborations and friendships. Currently, I am member of the Graduate Women in Science organisation, the Toastmasters club as well as the group of Bible studies for women and I enjoy sharing Spanish classes.

 

Lindau Alumni 2017 Ana Torres and Octavio Saucedo, Nobel Laureate Mario Molina, former President of the Mexican Academy of Sciences Jose Franco and Director of International Cooperation CONACYT, Arturo Borja (from left to right) after a discussion on Public Policy at the 67th Lindau Meeting, Photo: Courtesy of Ana Torres

Lindau Alumni 2017 Ana Torres and Octavio Saucedo, Nobel Laureate Mario Molina, Jose Franco, former President of the Mexican Academy of Sciences, and Arturo Borja, Director of International Cooperation CONACYT, (from left to right) after a discussion on Public Policy at the 67th Lindau Meeting, Photo: Courtesy of Ana Torres

 

The main goal of my current research project is to perform a theoretical study of the interfacial phenomena relevant for the development of new generation rechargeable batteries. Likewise, I will address the confinement effect exerted by molecular sieves, solvents, nano-structured materials or an inert gas matrix over the chemical reactions, which are important for chemical catalysis. It is expected that the outcome of this project would support experimental research that has been developed for both the description and design of battery materials and catalytic systems. Nowadays, it is important to assist the novel frontier materials design (with enhanced features) using theoretical methods and computational calculations before being synthetised in the laboratory. This could be very helpful to optimise resources and facilitate the materials implementation for the manufacturing process of technological devices.

Focus on Africa: Advancing Science to Advance Humankind

One of the things I love about Lindau is that it is truly diverse and inclusive. This is the case from a disciplinary point of view, in that although this is a chemistry meeting, non-chemists are welcome – physicists, material scientists, engineers, and even maths-maniacs are encouraged to apply and attend. And Lindau is also diverse from a national standpoint – there are nerds from all over the world here. 80 countries are represented, as are numerous cultures, languages, religions and experiences.

On Monday morning, I had the privilege of attending the breakfast of the African delegation, a group of approximately 40 students and postdocs from many countries across all of Africa, including Senegal, Nigeria, Egypt, South Africa, Sudan, and Kenya. As we dined on fresh orange juice and fried eggs, I got chatting with a few young scientists who hail from Kenya, including Titus Masese, who is a Research Scientist at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) in Japan.

Based in Osaka, Masese, 33, has lived in Japan since he was 18 years old, when he was recruited to attend Kyoto University as a Japanese Government Scholar, a programme that brings talented Kenyan students to Japan. At Kyoto U, he received his Bachelors in materials science and engineering and his Masters and PhD in electrochemistry. He is fluent is Japanese, Swahili, Kisii (a traditional language from the region of Kenya in which he grew up) and English.

 

Young scientist Titus Masese and science writer Alaina Levine, Photo/Credit: Alaina G. Levine

Young scientist Titus Masese and science writer Alaina Levine, Photo/Credit: Alaina G. Levine

 

Masese, whose presence at Lindau is supported by both AIST and a Horst-Köhler-Fellowship (supported by the Robert Bosch Stiftung), and whose research focus is in energy storage (rechargeable batteries), spent some time speaking with me about his enthusiasm for attending Lindau. We also discussed the many bi-directional, multinational opportunities that can be leveraged for African scientific efforts in support of African innovators across the continent and across the world.

This is an especially important time for channels of communication to be expanded as it relates to financial support of science, no matter where in the world we pursue our work. As Masese notes, it is crucial for people from African nations to attend Lindau, because “in terms of science and technology, there is a lot of research in Africa, but it is not as well know, and it is not being [leveraged],” he says. “The Lindau Meeting is the right platform to showcase the research and to find collaborators so that we can further advance the work. Scientists in some countries in Africa don’t get enough funding from their governments, so they come to Lindau, and perhaps can get more funding as well as opportunities for partnerships.”

Africa is the cradle of mankind, and African researchers and research institutions are known world leaders in many areas of STEM, he shares, including anthropology, mineralogy, agriculture, horticulture and energy storage. And yet, “even with the abundance of natural resources and brilliant minds, there’s just not enough research funding,” he says.

In Masese’s native Kenya, chemistry research and application has led to major insights and innovation in the field and beyond, he says. For example, Kenyan chemists apply their chemistry knowhow to solve problems related to designing drugs to combat tropical diseases such as cholera and malaria, and in the field of anthropology, chemists collaborate with scientists around the world on projects involving carbon dating of artefacts. Geochemists here use their talents to understand, find and characterise minerals. There are also cutting-edge investigations being conducted on designing compounds that can absorb and remove carcinogenic pollutants, such as lead and arsenic, from water and other resources, and on tackling radioactive waste disposal.

Another area he is closely following is African research in the energy sector. “Energy storage and finding energy solutions is a global crisis,” he says. “I think African governments recognise this. They also recognise there is more work to be done in this area. So I encourage government representatives to speak with scientists and engineers in their nations, and leverage that talent and knowhow to make a greater impact in finding common-sense energy solutions.”

Although Masese is not working with Kenyan researchers at this time, he would certainly like to do so in the future if the funding is available and timing is right. He regularly interfaces with the Kenyan Embassy in Japan, and recently had lunch with the Ambassador, H.E. Mr. Solomon K. Maina, who “is appreciative of the work that Kenyans in Japan do,” he says.

 

African Outreach Breakfast during the 67th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, Picture/Credit: Christian Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

African Outreach Breakfast during the 67th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, Picture/Credit: Christian Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

 

 

Masese is optimistic that opportunity for strengthening national, international, and intercontinental partnerships for African scientists worldwide will emerge from strategic networking. “The Kenyans and Africans I’ve met say the same thing, whether they are from Senegal or Nigeria or live in other countries: we should form networks to unite together to do something for the African continent in terms of research.” Tools such as Facebook groups dedicated to fostering alliances between African scholars are helpful in this regard, serving as just one mechanism to bind together innovators who are scattered across the world but are members of the African diaspora. “I have met people in different fields and they are not being funded by African governments,” he adds. “We can form collaborations as we try to find ways to convince our governments to support important research.”

The future is bright for Africa’s scientific enterprises, and for Masese himself, who next year will be evaluated for a permanent position at AIST. One of the goals of some of Kenyan expats in Japan is to create a new research institution in Kenya. “We want to build one single institute that will do multidisciplinary research, and do cutting edge work that will be of benefit to the entire African community,” he says.

And his presence at Lindau is playing a role in inspiring him to think big. “We could build an African Young Scientist Summit, like the Lindau Meeting and similar conferences in Asia,” he says with a smile. “There is a lot of interesting research being done in Africa, despite the fact that there are not as many resources being devoted to these scholars. But there is a way to open it to the world, with meetings like Lindau. This meeting can make a difference and serve as an enzyme to advance scientific research across Africa.”

Science in a Post-Truth Era

When scientific issues become publicly controversial, Nobel Laureates have a history of making strong statements at the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings, starting at the second meeting in 1955. There, eighteen laureates signed the first Mainau Declaration urging world leaders to not use nuclear weapons. The second Mainau declaration, signed by 36 laureates at the 65th Lindau Meeting in 2015 and by 40 additional laureates soon after, encouraged government leaders to take action to minimize the risks of climate change.  

And this year, Laureates, young scientists and former science diplomats made their position known about speaking up when “alternative facts” drive unpredictable political changes in the United States, United Kingdom and other countries. “Scientists cannot ignore what is happening in the world,” Countess Bettina Bernadotte auf Wisborg, President of the Council of the Lindau Meetings, said in her speech opening the 67th Lindau Meeting this year. “Some rulers, and people, seem to feel threatened by progress and the fact-oriented power of science.”

Countess Bettina Bernadotte presented the opening speech on Sunday evening.

Countess Bettina Bernadotte presented the opening speech on Sunday evening. Photo/Credit: Julia Nimke/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Last year, a volatile electorate voted for Britain to leave the European Union, leaving non-British EU nationals working in the country concerned about losing their jobs. Earlier this year, US President Trump withdrew the country’s support from the Paris Accord, an international treaty signed by 195 members of the United Nations agreeing to take action to mitigate climate change.

This year it seems politics are a common topic during informal gatherings at Lindau, with young researchers asking international colleagues about their experiences, seeking to better understand situations behind the headlines. Conversations about science and politics continued with a discussion for the media about today’s post-truth era hosted by Deutsche Welle on Monday afternoon.

Although public questioning of scientific information is particularly widespread today, alternative facts can be found even during the Renaissance, said Helga Nowotny, Vice-President of the Council for the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings and former president of the European Research Council, Austria. “We have never lived in a truth era.”

When science and politics intersect, a natural part of the scientific method – that scientific facts are not determined forever — presents a challenge for the perceptions of scientific truthfulness. Even when a large consensus of scientists agrees about a particular position, such as humanity’s role in climate change, the iterative process of science leaves uncertainty that some politicians can use to support their efforts to gather more votes. “Elections have become very close to marketing campaigns,” said Arturo Borja, Director of International Cooperation at the Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología (CONACYT) in Mexico.

 

Press Talk on 'Science in a Post-Truth Era' hosted by Deutsche Welle during the 67th Lindau Meeting. Photo/Credit: Julia Nimke/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Press Talk on ‘Science in a Post-Truth Era’ hosted by Deutsche Welle during the 67th Lindau Meeting. Photo/Credit: Julia Nimke/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

 

Marketing campaigns can trigger skepticism and critical analysis, leading to a general public distrust of politicians. Scientists, however, still have the public’s trust: More than 75% of Americans trust scientists to act in the public interest, while less than 50% have a similar trust in elected officials, according to a 2016 report from the Pew Research Center. But when politics makes it seem like the public is losing confidence in science, how do scientists help rebuild that trust?

Two suggestions arose during the discussion:

Citizen science projects, where non-scientists help scientists do research, are one way to help the public learn about the process of science by engaging with it themselves. These projects are also a way for scientists to give back to society, said Melania Zauri, a young scientist from Italy working at the Research Center for Molecular Medicine of the Austrian Academy of Sciences.

 

Young scientist Marian Nkansah, Nobel Lauraete William E. Moerner, and Helga Nowotny, Vice-President of the Council for the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings . Phot/Credit: Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Young scientist Marian Nkansah, Nobel Lauraete William E. Moerner, and Helga Nowotny, Vice-President of the Council for the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings. Photo/Credit: Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

In communication courses, Marian Nkahsah, a young scientist from Kwame Knrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana, learned how to identify her audience so she can speak directly to them. Scientists’ voices should be as loud as those who are propagating lies, she said.

William E. Moerner, 2014 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry and professor at Stanford University encouraged other scientists to talk to their friends and family about the scientific method. He also speaks publically, including at the March for Science in San Jose, California. He said speaking from an established connection of shared humanity could help break down barriers to misinformation.

“Science is not an alternative fact,” Moerner said. “It is something we have to use if we want to push our future forward.”

 

 

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Why and How Should We Communicate Economics?

Picture/Credit: Christian Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Picture/Credit: Christian Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

 

Advice for young economists by Bob Denham and Romesh Vaitilingam

Communicating economics to audiences beyond the ivory tower has never been more vital for policy and public debate – nor have there been more opportunities to reach those wider readerships. This column provides some advice for the younger generation of economists.

It should be obvious why communicating economics matters: take any big issue of our time and even the slightest scratch beneath the surface will reveal the economics underneath.

What is less obvious is why economists themselves need to be better communicators. Isn’t that the job of the media? Isn’t that the job of the communications department at their university or research group? In our work at the intersection between economists, the media and policy-makers, we have found all too often that economists don’t think it is their job to communicate.

But if it’s not their job, then whose is it? Last year saw economists’ expert advice ignored by large chunks of the public as they voted first for Brexit in the UK and then for Donald Trump as American president. Whoever is responsible for communicating economics is falling short.

We believe that economists – including the younger generation – can and should do more to communicate their analysis and evidence to a wider audience. Understanding why and how to develop an effective communications strategy is not hard. What’s more, the communication opportunities offered by the internet and social media make it easier than ever to reach readers who will value your insights.

VoxEU – the Centre for Economic Policy Research portal for research-based policy analysis and commentary for leading economists – as well as the blog of the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings are good starting points for young economists wanting to write about their research for readers beyond their narrow specialism.

Founded ten years ago, the site features daily columns by established and emerging members of the profession, which are accessed by a wide range of readers. The main target audiences in academia, thinktanks, finance ministries and other government departments, central banks, international organisations and the media usually have at least a little economics training. But the idea is to avoid the equations and write in a succinct and readable way, with the key findings and policy implications upfront.

Similar ‘multi-authored blogs’ open to new contributors include Ideas for India and The Long Run, recently established by the Economic History Society – as well as several sites in languages other than English, including the influential Nada es Gratis in Spain, and the original economics policy portal Italy’s La Voce, first set up by Tito Boeri in 2002.

One of the best guides to using the new technologies to communicate with an even broader audience has just been published as book by current and former members of the London School of Economics (LSE) blog team, Communicating Your Research with Social Media: A Practical Guide to Using Blogs, Podcasts, Data Visualisations and Video.

The LSE blogs themselves – which cover economics, business and politics in a number of regions of the world – are written at the level of, say, The Economist or Financial Times, and are generating a broad global readership. The editors are very open to ideas from young researchers looking to try their hand at writing for non-specialist readers.

An overview of the LSE team’s advice on blogging can be found on the LSE Impact blog here; and their list of ten ways to use social media to get your research noticed is here.

More advice on communicating economics through blogs, Twitter and so on is on the new website that we launched earlier this year, including this piece on getting your work seen and understood outside academia by economic historian Judy Stephenson.

Of course all the principles of effective research communication go back well before the internet became ubiquitous. Whatever the communication channel, the best place to start is to write a short summary of the key findings of your research in a way that’s accessible and appealing to someone who isn’t trained in economics – something that you’d be happy to give to your mother or a non-economist friend.

The notes we’ve long used on how to write a press release or ‘media briefing’ summarising your working paper or conference presentation are here; and economics teacher Mariana Koli gives her tips on how to listen, know your audience and avoid jargon are here.

Finally, we should mention film and video as tools for communicating economics. Video Vox carries short films made for a number of organisations, including Lindau, the most recent of which collects advice for young economists from Nobel laureates.

Our communicating economics website features a series of posts on making videos, as well as how to perform well in front of camera whether you’re being interviewed by colleagues or a big broadcast organisation like the BBC.

We welcome requests for advice on communicating economics, whether in written, audio or visual form and off- or online – and we look forward to meeting the young economists of the 6th Lindau Meeting on Economic Sciences in August. If you’re tweeting, remember to use the hashtag! #LiNoEcon