Marc Robert joins the 2023 list of “Highly Cited Researchers”

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Every year, Clarivate* identifies the most influential researchers in their field of research from around the world. The few scientists selected are authors of several Highly Cited Papers.™ These high-impact papers rank among the top 1% most cited for their field over the past ten years. After Didier Astruc, Marc Robert, a teacher-researcher at the Molecular Electrochemistry Laboratory (CNRS / Université Paris-Cité) is the second Frenchman to join this short list in chemistry. He takes this opportunity to answer our questions.

In 2023, you will be among the 0.1% of scientists whose publications have been the most cited over the last ten years. An important recognition for you and your group?

Above all, this distinction rewards the work of an entire group, and an award is always a source of satisfaction. But it is also very special for me because this analysis of scientific production over the last ten years, via this number of citations, rewards work over the medium and long term, the time needed to develop research that was initially purely fundamental. Our work, well upstream of the application, focuses on the very nature of the reactivity of a chemical bond and its understanding. This is an essential step if we want to break these bonds in a controlled way to obtain products of interest. Take CO2, for example. All the work carried out by the group on the mechanisms needed to activate this particularly inert molecule so that it can be transformed has finally found an echo in the scientific community. Indeed, it is thanks to this very upstream work that scientists have been able to devise powerful new tools for carrying out this transformation. Without this very basic knowledge base, it is probable that we would not be able to do a tenth of what we currently know how to do to activate CO2.

But our missions are not limited to the production of knowledge. Curiosity, the need to better understand how the world we live in works – these fundamental questions that motivate our work must not remain confined to the dedicated spaces of research laboratories. Quite the contrary, and it is our role to help disseminate them.

The work of scientists must go beyond the academic sphere to feed into societal issues and contribute to technological advances. I’ve also noticed that moving towards application means incorporating economic and social parameters, and even cultural practices, into our thinking, giving rise to new fundamental questions that constantly bring us back to our core business. This transfer of knowledge to industry is a major source of funding that cannot be neglected in a very tight budgetary context, even for a subject as fashionable as CO2 recovery.

You say that fundamental research needs to get out of the laboratories. More generally, how do you see the role of the scientist in the public arena?

Our role is not limited to producing knowledge. This knowledge must become real tools that citizens can use to help shape their future. I’m not talking about a simple transfer of purely scientific information. The image of scientific knowledge illuminating the world no longer makes sense and probably never has. Far from holding the truth, we are simply trying to advance our understanding of the world around us. But we need to go further, by stimulating the curiosity of as many people as possible, and by helping them to metabolise the knowledge produced in our laboratories.

This is particularly important for research topics with a high societal impact, such as CO2 recovery. If we want to maintain our role as experts by demonstrating the benefits that can be derived from our research, we need to integrate the political, socio-economic and cultural context into our thinking and our discourse, so as to initiate a collective reflection leading to the technological choices that will be made. One of our missions is to pass on our knowledge to citizens so that they can be involved in the decisions that will impact their future, as well as to political representatives and socio-economic players. Co-constructing knowledge to co-construct solutions…

Let’s talk about the solutions you mention. There is a great deal of research being carried out into the recovery of CO2, spurred on by the climate issues linked to its overproduction. Do you think that, in the long term, they will enable us to achieve a balance between our energy needs and the production methods used to meet them?

Science alone cannot do everything. Several levers can be used to achieve this objective. Industry, which is responsible for around 20% of anthropogenic greenhouse gases, must first reduce its emissions. Scientists have a lot to offer to help them do this, whether in the manufacture of more environmentally-friendly medicines and materials, or in the use of renewable energies. It is also necessary to establish a circular economy in which use, life cycle and recycling possibilities must be taken into account right from the product design stage, integrating respect for the environment at every stage of the design process. Finally, freeing ourselves from fossil fuels and turning resolutely towards large-scale use of solar energy could perfectly cover most of our needs. In this area, current research into the conversion of CO2 by solar energy into fuel is particularly active. In the long term, it could enable this energy to be stored efficiently on a large scale. This could open the door to its massive use…

* WebClarivate, world leader in the analysis of data published on the web, aims to improve the way the world creates, protects and advances innovation.

Contact : Marc Robert