Steve Elliott, Chief Executive of the Chemical Industries Association (CIA), outlines benefits to be gained from a rebalancing of the United Kingdom's economy…
From laptops to cleaning products or medicines to motor vehicles, chemicals are essential ingredients for modern day living. Every day the chemical industry contributes £70m to the UK economy, equivalent to £17bn a year. That equates to a daily £30m positive contribution to the UK's balance of trade or £6.6bn per year.
Concern for our planet and its wellbeing is another area forcing chemists to think about greener, more sustainable processes to make the things we need and want, such as new technologies, fuels and drugs. A green, low carbon economy is the way forward for our country and the chemical sector is critical to that future.
The chemical industry in the UK has grown to its present importance through a steady stream of innovation in products and processes. For example in this Olympic year, improvements to sport are only possible thanks to the developments in chemistry, and the chemists who work hard to create new materials that are stronger, lighter and more resilient. This intellectual driving force of innovation is also what drives growth.
The UK is recognised for its strengths in academic research, and the chemical industry has an excellent reputation for successfully commercialising R&D. Other acknowledged strengths include the quality of output and ability to scale-up production quickly.
A large number of research breakthroughs in physics would not have been possible without the use of principles and methods of chemistry. Examples are the development by industry of specialised drugs to cure diseases, and the understanding of biological and geological systems – these would be unimaginable if it weren't for the contributions from chemistry.
Chemical and pharmaceutical businesses spend more on research and development than anyone else – over £5bn each year – which amounts to one-third of the UK total spend. Chemistry facilitates other research and development – new materials, adhesives, paints in aerospace and motors, key components of electronics and communications.
Without research in chemistry and chemical engineering, there would be markedly fewer improvements in the quality of life.Challenges
Chemistry in the UK is in danger of falling behind its international competitors as a result of a squeeze on funding for vital lab equipment.
Despite our efforts, and those of the whole science community, the overall research budget is being frozen in cash terms over the next three years. We continue our efforts to highlight for government and funders the issues affecting chemical sciences.
In almost every facet of the business, industrial and academic communities, harsh decisions are being taken. It is vital that the community comes together to discuss how we can maintain and strengthen the chemical science base during the difficult times ahead.
The message all of us have to get across is that you mustn't sacrifice investment in long-term research for the sake of a short-term gain, which is a danger we have with the current economic circumstances.
Chemistry plays an important role in the advancement of sport
Some of those affected by reduced funding may be able to find support through other routes.
New funding calls are regularly announced, such as the Technology Strategy Board's latest £5m competition to stimulate R&D in 'Sustainable Manufacturing for the Process Industries'. The Chemistry Innovation Knowledge Transfer Network is always on hand to provide dedicated support to the chemistry-using community for such calls. As well as keeping an eye open for new opportunities, it is also important to consider the funding calls that remain open on a continuous basis.
Concern for our planet and its wellbeing is another area forcing chemists to think about greener, more sustainable processes to make the things we need and want, such as new technologies, fuels and drugs. A green, low carbon economy is the way forward for our country and the chemical sector is critical to that future. Chemical companies manufacture key materials used in wind turbine blades, fuel cells, lightweight vehicles and insulation – to name just a few green-enabling products. The carbon emissions saved by society in the lifetime of our products are two times the carbon emitted from making them, and this is set to rise to three times as these solutions become more widely used.
Nanomaterials offer even more potential for the chemical industry to make step change innovations and make a positive contribution to societal challenges, for instance, in helping support an aging population, or in developing climate change solutions. Nanomaterials offer the opportunity to develop significantly lighter, stronger materials and coatings to reduce transport CO2
emissions, drug applications that improve the effectiveness and monitoring of medicines, and lighting and sensor applications that improve safety and reduce carbon emissions. In short, innovation in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries is likely to grow exponentially and make ever-increasing contributions to our wellbeing.
Chemical research is integral for medicine
With some big challenges facing society in the coming decades – for instance climate change and an ageing population – and with the chemical industry at the forefront of innovation to help meet those challenges, now is a good time for people generally to understand the work of chemists and the valuable contribution of the chemical industry.
Finally, there are positive signals regarding our most precious asset – the people in our industry. With financial support and the uptake of apprentices on the rise, and with many universities reporting increasing numbers and quality of chemistry and chemical engineering undergraduates, there has never been a better time to secure the industry's future and really cement a rebalancing of the economy in favour of the chemistry-using industries.