Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions
Catalyst Program

Catalyst Program

Launched in 2017, the Catalyst Program aims to prompt and support expansions of existing partnerships between Duke faculty and Nicholas Institute staff on research and workshops. Through the program's seed funding, these researchers develop new or emergent ideas related to environmental policy challenges at the federal, state, and local levels.

The Nicholas Institute’s mission is to help decision makers create timely, effective, and economically practical solutions to the world’s critical environmental challenges. The Nicholas Institute engages local, state, and federal governments, international agencies, NGOs, companies, and communities through convening, providing legal, economic, and policy analysis, and supporting the process of taking policy concepts and turning them into practice. The vision for the Catalyst Program is to build on this mission by increasing engagement with Duke University faculty to incubate and advance new partnerships, enhance policy-relevant knowledge, and create innovative policy solutions based on new creative synergies. The program will invest in policy-relevant proposals that catalyze Nicholas Institute and faculty collaborations in new or emergent areas of shared interest. The program’s intent is to create collaborations that will continue past the grant and become central components of the Institute’s work in the years ahead.

2020–2021 Catalyst Program Awardees

Mapping Solar Photovoltaic Arrays Using Unpiloted Aerial Vehicles

The team for this project is led by experts in machine learning, interpretation of remote sensing data, and energy access. The project will investigate the use of high‐resolution imagery collected by drones for identifying energy infrastructure—such as small solar panels, diesel and gasoline generators, and distribution lines—to support public policy and private investments in sustainable energy access.


Rob Fetter, Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment & Sustainability; Jordan Malof, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering; Kyle Bradbury, Duke University Energy Initiative and Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering; Jay Rineer and Robert Beach, RTI International

Challenges of Using Environmental Social Governance Data to Motivate Action on Climate Change and Planetary Health

Environmental, social, and governance (ESG) data is material for investment firms seeking to leverage capital to promote and privilege sustainable businesses. However, ESG data is, in general, neither reliable, nor transparent. This pre-catalyst grant is intended to design a larger project to 1) understand the underlying issues in producing, reporting, and applying ESG data to motivate business and financial action on climate change, and 2) develop a framework for an ESG Lab at Duke.


John Virdin, Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment & Sustainability; Deb Gallagher and Joseph Bachman, Nicholas School of the Environment; John Buley and Cathy Clark, Fuqua School of Business; Tyler Felgenhauer, Pratt School of Engineering; Lee Reiners, Duke School of Law.

Integrating Policy into Duke Restore

Duke Restore is a new initiative of the Nicholas School of the Environment with ambitions to make the school a global leader in ecosystem restoration and cultivation so that this conservation intervention can become a realistic recovery strategy for all ecosystems and economies in the face of intensifying global stress. This project aims to connect the applied research conducted by the Duke Marine Lab through the Restore initiative with the work underway at the Nicholas Institute with policy makers, resource managers, and funders in North Carolina and elsewhere. The goal is to build collaboration to enhance the impact Duke can have on the resiliency of coastal communities to flooding and sea level rise while also enhancing fisheries productivity and biodiversity.


Lydia Olander, John Virdin, and Amy Pickle, Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment & Sustainability; Brian Silliman, Carter Smith, Liz Demattia, Pat Halpin, Dan Rittschof, Grant Murray, and Andy Read, Nicholas School of the Environment and Duke Marine Laboratory; Curt Richardson, Nicholas School of the Environment and Duke Wetland Center; Dave Johnston, Nicholas School of the Environment Drone Lab; Steve Roady, Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment & Sustainability and Duke School of Law; Dan Vermeer, Fuqua Center for Energy, Development, and the Global Environment.

Cross-Disciplinary Policy and Technology Solutions for the Plastic Pollution Pandemic: Creating Connections and Community

This project seeks to build and advance new collaborations to create policy and technology solutions for reducing plastic pollution through a Plastic Pollution Working Group of Duke faculty and students. The idea builds on a pre-catalyst grant awarded to the project team for the 2019–2020 academic year that allowed for production of a manuscript detailing technologies that either prevent plastic leakage or remove plastic from waterways. The report is part of the Nicholas Institute’s upcoming Global Plastics Policy Analysis for the Pew Foundation, providing insight into plastic remediation innovation occurring in the private sector.


John Virdin and Amy Pickle, Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment & Sustainability; Meagan Dunphy-Daly, Nicholas School of the Environment; Richard Di Giulio, Nicholas School of the Environment and Duke Superfund Research Center; William Eward, Department of Orthopaedics and Duke Comparative Oncology Group; Kathinka Fürst, Duke Kunshan University Environmental Research Center; Andy Read, Dan Rittschof, and Thomas Schultz, Nicholas School of the Environment and Duke Marine Laboratory; Steve Roady, Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment & Sustainability and Duke School of Law; Jason Somarelli, Department of Medicine and Duke Comparative Oncology Group; Dan Vermeer, Fuqua Center for Energy, Development, and the Global Environment.

Early Stage Development of a Solar Geoengineering Board Game

With climate scientists warning of serious global impacts if greenhouse gas emissions are not quickly curtailed, some nations may forego attempts at international cooperation and instead seek to address climate change using geoengineering technology, such as solar radiation management (SRM). Because it is expected to be relatively cheap and fast-acting, solar geoengineering could be deployed by a single nation desperate to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, but this action may be detrimental to other nations and may undermine the global motivation for emissions abatement. This project will design and beta test a board game that will give players the opportunity to experience the complexities that solar geoengineering introduces into the geopolitical dynamics of climate policy.


Mark Borsuk, Jonathan Wiener, and Tyler Felgenhauer, Duke Center on Risk; Billy Pizer, Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment & Sustainability and Sanford School of Public Policy; Shai Ginsburg, Duke Game Lab; Max Cawley, Museum of Life and Science; Christine Ogilvie Hendren, Team Helium LLC; Chris Cummings, Decision Analytica LLC.

An Analysis of the Industrial “Opt-Out” Challenge

The Energy Information Administration reports that in 2018 industrial customers consumed 33 percent of all primary energy and 26 percent of electricity in the United States, representing a large energy efficiency resource opportunity. This project will utilize a combination of non-public microdata from the U.S. Census and publicly available data to compare the energy usage of industrial customers that “opt-out” of electric utility energy efficiency programs with those that stay “opted-in” to determine the value and potential opportunity of utility-offered energy efficiency and demand response programs.


Gale Boyd, Duke Social Science Research Institute; Jen Weiss and Rob Fetter, Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment & Sustainability; Xirui Zhang, Economics Department.

Understanding and Controlling Urban Soil Lead Contamination and Its Impact on Public Health

Lead exposure remains a significant public health concern, despite impressive reductions in the United States over the past 40 to 50 years. Regulatory efforts have limited exposures in workplaces, schools, homes, and in the outdoor urban environment, but challenges to curbing human lead exposure persist, including our limited understanding of lead contamination in urban soils. This project creates a diverse team with expertise in soil chemistry, toxicology, epidemiology, environmental health sciences, pediatric and family medicine, community health, and public policy to coproduce policy-relevant research and to identify best practices for governmental actors to address lead exposure hazards from urban soils.


Kay Jowers, Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment & Sustainability; Dan Richter, Anna Wade, and Kate Hoffman, Nicholas School of the Environment; Nancy Lauer and Michelle Nowlin, Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic; Nrupen Bhavsar, Department of Medicine, General Internal Medicine; Jillian Hurst, Children's Health & Discovery Initiative at Duke University; Lloyd Michener, Family Medicine & Community Health; Christopher Timmins, Economics Department.