The joys and challenges of a researcher in sustainable finance
FS-UNEP Centre / 25 May 2021
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Sustainable Finance Researcher
Menglu Neupert-Zhuang is a member of the research group at the FS-UNEP Collaborating Centre for Climate and Sustainable Energy Finance. Her research interests are in behavioural and environmental economics. She is passionate about studying financial decision-making in the context of redirecting the economy and society towards sustainability. Her impact-oriented research contributes to the latest policy debates in sustainable finance.

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There are two things I like very much. One is writing; the other is solving problems. I do not enjoy jumping from one problem to another though. Instead, I like thinking deeply about the same issue for a long-time and discovering new aspects every day. I guess these two traits make me realise at an early stage that doing research gives me satisfaction. In research, I can dwell on a narrowed-down problem for a long time digging its root out, and I also need to write up the findings neatly in order to communicate them well.

Now I am a third-year PhD student. I am working as a researcher at Frankfurt School and, at the same time, enrolled as an external doctoral student at the University of Marburg. This unique situation allows me to interact with brilliant minds from both universities and learn from different university cultures.

Sustainable finance research

My research area is sustainable finance (SF). SF research is relatively new. In Europe, SF has gotten wide public attention since around 2018 with the launch of the EU action plan on financing sustainable growth. As researchers, we do not start from scratch though. There were already academic subjects, which are close relatives of SF, e.g., socially responsible investments (SRI), environmental economics, corporate social responsibility (CSR), to name a few. My research in SF is closely associated with environmental economics and behavioural economics.

Still, sustainable finance has its unique characteristics. For instance, conventional energy-economic modelling does not sufficiently study financing mechanisms. Traditional CSR research comes frequently from a voluntary and “good to have” perspective, but SF is on the way to becoming a “must-have”. Thus, research results from traditional researches usually cannot be directly used to solve SF problems, and the insights usually cannot be directly used for SF policy advice.

Using existing knowledge from related research fields, I take theories and methods from traditional environmental and behavioural economics to solve relevant real-world SF problems. It trains me in established academic approaches and allows me to explore crucial new issues. My researches focus on the questions such as, how do policy uncertainties affect investment decisions into clean and brown power generation assets? What is the effect of additional and framed information in labels on retail investors’ investment choices? What information do they seek or avoid in investment decision-making?

At the current stage, matching traditional theories and methods to sustainable finance challenges seems to be a dominant approach. There is definitely hope for more ground-breaking SF research to come.

Challenges are the companion of research

I can notice my progress and improvements day by day: my thoughts become clearer, my research presentation skills get better, and coding for economic models becomes easier. Still, I have to admit that challenges are always standing there at every corner. It takes efforts and patience, sometimes just sheer persistence and courage.

As I continue my PhD journey, I always remind myself of what Prof. Steve Pischke from the London School of Economics said: “Research is hard for EVERYONE, even the best researchers”. It is both a harsh reality but also a relief. I also realise that doing a PhD is not only about mental abilities. It is also about resilience, taking criticism with a positive attitude, believing in what I am doing and intrinsically loving it. Without the joys and satisfaction that naturally flow out from what I do to balance the long, hard and frequently frustrating process I face as a researcher, it is very hard to keep going.

Though doing a PhD is like a mountain that only a few dare to climb, I would still encourage young people who feel drawn to academic research to consider pursuing it. During their PhD, some people find out that they are made for research; others realise that research is not for them, but working in the industry is. Either way, one comes out as a more resilient person equipped with the skills and traits that are needed widely in the world.