AllChemE Report: "Chemistry - Europe & the Future" - Graphical version

Chemistry and Society

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The manufacture and sale of chemicals constitutes one of the most strengths of Europe's economy. The unversities and research institutes provide the ideas and trained scientists on which the industry relies for commercial success through innovation. The educational institutions and their research laboratories are mainly supported by public funds, administered mainly through national governments. The maintenance of this funding is an important role for national governments. Exchange of scientists between laboratories in Europe and effective collaboration between academic and industrial organisations, aided by the European Commission, can strengthen the competitiveness of the European chemical industry

Chemistry: Science at the Molecular Frontiers

Chemistry is a broad science, embracing the concepts of creation of molecules and the manipulation of atoms and dealing with microscopic and macroscopic scales. It covers interactions with plants, animals and humans through agriculture, biology and medicine and with the physical world through electronics, new building materials and new sources of energy. It affects the people of our planet, protecting and preserving our health, ecology, culture and heritage.

While chemistry is a science in its own right, it also supports and interacts with other scientific disciplines. In concert with biology, physics, medicine, materials science and other core disciplines, it makes effective contributions to the solutions of problems facing the world today and to the improvement of the condition of mankind tomorrow.

In leading technology towards the future, it should be remembered that chemistry is not a new science, but a steadily evolving discipline like physics and biology, interdependent on discoveries in other areas. It is a discipline that has long and deep traditions in Europe. It is responsive to the challenges of the European economy, the European environment and European culture and to the influences of scientific discovery elsewhere in the world.

 

Chemistry & Education

Universities provide teaching and training for bright young people in the basics of chemical science and engineering, both for students specialising in chemistry and for others who need the underpinning experience of chemistry for their own particular scientific, professional or technical education.

Of course, provision of an educational training in chemistry does not begin at university. It starts at primary school with an introduction to observation and embryonic interpretation of phenomena and continues through early, middle and later schooling. There are deep worries within the chemistry community in Europe that the educational provision in science in some countries is lacking in appropriate resourcing and basic training, particularly in mathematical skills and in developing a comfortable familiarity with the philosophy of physical science.

Fortunately, in most countries in Europe chemistry and chemical engineering are highly regarded as professions. However, in some countries this is not the case, with adverse consequences for practitioners of the sciences and public perception of its activities and benefits.

Much more effort must be put into the careful training and selection of science teachers, particularly chemistry teachers, and into the promotion of a more balanced view of the benefits as well as the responsibilities of chemistry as a science.

An improved standard of general science education for all Europeans is essential for future success. Without a knowledge of basic scientific matters, of concentration, of risk and probability, and of the properties of materials and molecules, a science-based industrial society cannot function democratically. As we see daily in our media, a society with widespread scientific ignorance is all too easily influenced by facts incorrectly reported or interpreted in an unbalanced way.

Academic institutions and the chemical industry accept that it is necessary to demonstrate that the advanced technology used in industry is both safe and responsibly managed.

 

Chemistry & Research

The chemical industry of Europe has grown to its present importance through a steady stream of innovation in products and processes. Many new ideas, concepts and techniques come from continual contact with fundamental and applied research in chemistry and chemical engineering. These provide the intellectual driving force of innovation. Without research in chemistry and chemical engineering there would be markedly fewer improvements in the quality of life.

The research activities described earlier in this report embrace most of contemporary chemistry, biochemistry, biotechnology and chemical engineering. It is from this base that new research in areas of strategic importance, and in areas that we cannot presently imagine, will spring.

Chemistry as a research area introduces to young doctoral trainees the excitement of the scientific frontier, providing experience in problem solving, information handling, organisation, interpretation and presentation. It teaches practical skills involving the manipulation of chemicals and the use of sophisticated analytical instrumentation for the interpretation of phenomena. The results of the research are of immediate benefit to other chemists and scientists in related disciplines and in many cases also to industrial R&TD groups. Chemistry is thus an interdisciplinary science with high industrial relevance.

While chemistry, at the research level, is a relatively small-scale activity, often involving only small teams, it is essential to ensure proper provision of laboratory facilities to meet health and safety needs. State-of-the-art analytical instrumentation must be made available at the laboratory level and effective in-house research support should be provided.

It is also necessary to invest in large-scale instrumentation (neutron diffraction, synchrotron radiation, large-scale lasers, etc) whose expense precludes availability to individual small-scale laboratories. National and European funding for such research at both ends of the scale is of great importance in maintaining Europe's position in basic chemical science.

There is a strong correspondence between academic training and research objectives and industrial research and development objectives. Links between academia and industry can operate in a variety of ways. These include a full contract between an industrial organisation or consortium with one laboratory, or a group of laboratories, engaged on pre-competitive or competitive research. The latter of necessity raises the issues of confidentiality and intellectual property. Looser contracts for general collaboration on generic research themes, designed to give industry a foothold or access to intellectual capability and expertise in an area of potential or presently peripheral interest, are also used. Transfer of personnel to and from academic laboratories for retraining, additional training and working on projects of potential, likely or immediate interest to the industrial sponsor are also increasingly common.

There is already a close and symbiotic relationship between industry and academia, a relationship which is a good model of effective collaboration. It can be improved and made more effective in some countries by adjustment of national taxation policy, thereby releasing additional funds for investment in R&TD, as occurs in the USA. While close integration with industrial R&TD will bring impressive gains, the exclusive emphasis on this form of collaboration could lead in the long term to the decline of chemistry as a distinct and innovative academic discipline. A balance needs to be struck between fundamental research in academic institutions and collaborative research between academic institutions and industry. The chemical industry's collaborative programme, Sustainable Technology (SUSTECH), is a good example of this latter form of collaboration.

 

Industrial Competitiveness

Universities and related academic institutions have an obligation to undertake training of scientific manpower at post-school (ca. age 19) level and at the doctorate level, with the needs of the 'customer', usually but not exclusively the chemical industry, in mind. The chemical industry, in recognising its critical dependence on access to highly trained, well-educated postgraduate chemists, strongly endorses that view.

The chemical industry recognises the need to safeguard its competitive position and is striving hard to maintain the flow of innovative products and processes which are more resource- and energy-efficient, which generate less waste and are kinder to the environment. The industry's SUSTECH programme of collaborative R&TD with other sectors of industry, with universities and research institutions, is the industry's chosen vehicle for bringing this about. The AllChemE partners recognise their responsibility to ensure that society understands and accepts the need and desirability of these innovations.

The chemical industry supports the concept of giving more societal and political relevance to the key industrial R&TD objectives and would like to see that carried further into the structure and content of the Fifth Framework Programme. As the supplier of new materials, the chemical industry has much to contribute to the formulation and implementation of the Programme, as has chemistry as an enabling science. To achieve this, we recognise the need to create a new mechanism to facilitate communication and coordination between the chemical industry, research laboratories, and the European Commission, in order to extract the maximum benefit from collaborative R&TD.

 

AllChemE, the European Commission and the Framework Programmes

The member groups of AllChemE believe that it is a task of national governments to resource fundamental research in terms of national strengths and needs. However, there are four main areas where the European Commission currently assists in the promotion of science and technology:

As has been emphasised throughout this report, pre- and post-doctoral training takes place in academic institutions and is carried out largely through fundamental research studies. The success of the former Erasmus and now the Socrates programmes has revealed the strong demand for mobility in training in Europe and AllChemE strongly supports this. The European Commission has greatly facilitated the breakdown of national barriers through the mobility of researchers carrying out training in Europe. This mobility should be increased, as should the coordination of research training through European networks in the Training and Mobility of Researchers (TMR) programme. However, there are no internal priorities within these programmes and there is no attempt to address the relationship between the excellent research activities and the needs of a very important and successful chemical industry.

The Commission is encouraged to establish priorities within its programmes for mobility and training in consultation with the chemical industry and the academic world, thereby underpinning and therefore strengthening Europe's science and technology base. The implementation of new programmes should respond to and reflect these priorities.

Furthermore, chemistry and chemical engineering are dispersed through a variety of themes within the specific programmes of the Framework Programme. There is no special focus on the chemical industry. The Commission now has an opportunity to make possible a greatly improved contribution from research activities in chemistry across Europe, through better recognition of national strengths and priorities and through a scheme of thematic networks dedicated to exploratory research within the strategic domain.

 

Chemistry & the Future

In the near future, taking into account the relationship between research in chemistry within academic institutions and the needs of industry, we can discern certain essential priorities. These are:

Chemistry will take an increasing role as creator and enabler in materials science and biology, in particular learning from nature how she assembles molecules and how such molecules recognise each other, and learning how to mimic biological processes by simpler chemical reactions.

In the longer term, chemistry is going to create materials with extraordinary properties - as yet undreamed of - which will dramatically improve communications, healthcare, environmental monitoring and transport. Chemistry will stimulate and support innovation in all of the other branches of science and technology.