Science Communication and Policy Officer from The European Chemical Society, Alex Schiphorst offers his thoughts on the old adage that ‘chemistry is everywhere’ and on the important role of science in policymaking
That ‘chemistry is everywhere’ is an oft-repeated adage by chemists to explain the value of chemistry as a subject that just can’t be ignored. But whilst true at face value – everything around us is chemistry – the statement has become somewhat clichéd and fails to catch the real significance of chemistry in everyday life. Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling, a pioneer in quantum chemistry and molecular biology stated that: “Every aspect of the world today – even politics and international relations – is affected by chemistry”. From medicine to agriculture, from space exploration to deep sea diving, from cultural heritage to education, the role of chemistry is so fundamental that it is ultimately taken for granted.
The chemical sciences in Europe
At EuChemS, the European Chemical Society, we take it as our responsibility to ensure that the voice of chemistry in Europe is heard, and that scientific evidence and advice is effectively relied on to make political decisions. Representing over 40 chemistry-related organisations, and by extension more than 160,000 chemists from across Europe, EuChemS aims to communicate the central function of science in policymaking work.
Far from static, the chemical sciences are in constant flux, with breakthrough discoveries constantly reshaping our knowledge and how we view the future. New developments in nanochemistry, innovative medicines, energy sources and food safety – and the list goes on, have significant effects on the economic, political and social fabric of our world. But chemistry has also suffered from a negative image, with combative crises emerging over the uses of glyphosate or neonicotinoids.
Chemistry’s image has also been dampened by a rise in populist discourse, and the increasing distrust expressed towards scientific findings and advice. The anti-vaccine argument gaining traction in Italy and Romania typifies this changing landscape. Such changes have, in turn, changed the role of chemists and scientists. There is now a genuine need to bring back that spark that makes chemistry so magical. And to do this, chemists need to proactively communicate their work to decisionmakers and the general public.
2019 – International Year of the Periodic Table
2019 was proclaimed the International Year of the Periodic Table by the United Nations and UNESCO in light of the 150-year-old discovery of the periodic system by Russian scientist Dmitri Mendeleev. And so EuChemS took this opportunity to design a new and unique periodic table. The result is an odd-looking periodic table depicting element scarcity: which details elements that may no longer be so readily available in the next 100 years, which are in short supply, which originate from conflict zones, and which are found in our smartphones. The image is far from reassuring, and the work aims to encourage citizens and policymakers alike to rethink how we use and dispose of electronics, our recycling infrastructures, our tendency to waste, as well as the ethical considerations to take into account. The periodic table was unveiled on 22 January 2019 in the European Parliament at an event chaired by MEP Catherine Stihler and MEP Clare Moody.
Over the last few months, EuChemS has actively participated in the discussion on the future EU research framework programme, Horizon Europe. In a position paper published in August 2018, EuChemS laid out a series of recommendations, including a call to increase the proposed budget to €160 billion and to boost the budgets set for the European Research Council and the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions. The importance of enabling the United Kingdom to continue participating in EU research framework programmes post-Brexit was also a core issue in the statement. Indeed, recent research demonstrates that international collaboration generates better and more impactful science. With both the UK and the EU being science powerhouses, neither can afford to no longer work so closely with the other.
Issues that affect the chemical sciences themselves
In addition to working on policy issues in which chemistry can play a vital role, EuChemS focuses on issues that affect the chemical sciences themselves. This includes issues linked to gender imbalances within academia and industry, ethics and scientific integrity, and the open access transition for scientific publishing. In February 2019, EuChemS responded to the call for feedback on the implementation of Plan S, the open access plan put forward by a coalition of European funders (the so-called cOAlition S) with the support of the European Commission. The issue, being at the heart of how science is done, has been a contentious topic. EuChemS has attempted to provide a balanced perspective which takes into account the concerns expressed by chemical societies and their members who may be most affected by the potentially unintended consequences of Plan S.
Chemistry: A catalyst for changing the world
From nanoparticles to building ever more efficient solar panels, from laboratories to nuclear plants, from classrooms to EU law, chemistry appears everywhere, but this does not mean it is a passive subject. Chemistry is hugely innovative and can act as a catalyst in radically changing the world around us for the better.
Science Communication and Policy Officer
The European Chemical Society (EuChemS)
Tel: +32 (0)2 289 25 67