Mexico’s scientist in chief

Published online on July 28, 2010, in Nature.

After winning a Nobel prize for helping to protect the planet, Mario Molina is tackling a much more difficult problem — trying to clean up Mexico City.

Cab drivers have heard of him. Political leaders seek his advice. Strangers often shake his hand in a mixture of congratulations and thanks. Such is the fame of Mario Molina, the 67-year-old chemist who has become something of a national icon in his hometown of Mexico City.

More than four decades ago, Molina left this city to pursue his doctorate in the United States. His first paper as a postdoc in 1974 alerted the world to the atmospheric dangers of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), and helped to save the ozone layer — the planet’s shield against ultraviolet radiation. Molina went on to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry and rise to the top ranks at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge. But close personal and cultural ties pulled him back to Mexico City some five years ago, when he shifted away from the elegance of stratospheric chemistry to tackle the messy world of public policy, urban planning and climate change.

Molina’s great challenge is to help Mexico City to reach its goal of becoming the greenest megacity in Latin America. It is a tall order. This metropolis of more than 20 million people was once considered the most polluted urban area in the world. Mexico City made great strides during the years that Molina was in the United States, and he has pushed for further environmental gains since his return. But the city still suffers from problems such as persistent air pollution, rampant development and poor sanitation.

Through his eponymous think tank, the Mario Molina Center for Strategic Studies in Energy and the Environment in Mexico City, Molina has assembled a team to tackle those seemingly intractable problems. As the only Mexican to garner a science Nobel, Molina uses his stature to provide behind-the-scenes advice to government and industry leaders. Some think he should take a more forceful stand on issues, but Molina’s quiet style has already earned him the trust of Mexico City’s mayor, Marcelo Ebrard, as well as Mexican President Felipe Calderón. This is Molina’s way of giving something back to the country that provided him with opportunities as he grew up. “The Nobel prize is of course a big honour and so on, but it’s also a responsibility,” he says. “If I use it wisely, then I can impact government decisions.”

It’s like gospel

Molina grew up in an atmosphere of culture and privilege, with a father who tripled as a successful lawyer, academic and diplomat. Mario travelled the world for his education, attending boarding school in Switzerland, university in Mexico and Germany, and graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley. All this helped him to develop an international view on the world and a diplomatic personality. Although accustomed to advising lawmakers, governments and heads of state on difficult issues, he does not flaunt his status.

“Mario conveys overwhelming modesty and humbleness,” says Adrián Fernández Bremauntz, a long-time colleague and friend who heads the National Institute of Ecology, a research arm of the federal environment ministry, based in Mexico City. Some people invoke the term “Saint Mario”, and Fernández jokes that he can almost make out a halo above Molina’s head when he speaks. “It’s like gospel.”

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