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Article related to: People and perspectives
International Year of Chemistry
The International Year of Chemistry 2011 organised by UNESCO, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in cooperation with IUPAC, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, is a worldwide celebration of the achievements of chemistry and its contribution to the well-being of humankind. The year also coincides with the 100th anniversary of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry that was awarded to Marie Skłodowska Curie in 1911. During the year, a lot of events are organised around the world under the slogan "Chemistry - our life, our future".The closing ceremony which will be held in Brussels on 1 December 2011 will discuss how to solve great problems of humanity with the help of science and technology. International Year of Chemistry website: http://www.chemistry2011.org/
"The basic message of Ernest Solvay is still relevant"
In 2011, the International Year of Chemistry, the ECHA Newsletter will publish interviews related to personalities that have contributed to the development of modern chemistry and their significance for the present and future. Mr Alexis Brouhns, Director for Corporate Government and Public Affairs at the Solvay Group, visited ECHA in February on the occasion of the International Year of Chemistry and the naming of the Ernest Solvay meeting room.
Mr Brouhns, how would you describe Ernest Solvay from today's perspective?
Ernest Solvay was an entrepreneur, a philanthropist and a passionate believer in the value of education and in the forces of progress. He was a product of his time (the late 19th century) but he was also ahead of his time which is why it is still so easy to associate oneself with his vision even in the 21st century. Ernest Solvay hoped that there might be a grand Universal Law which unified all things. Of course, Solvay's Law was to remain hypothetical but the journey of discovery that it took him on brought him and others great benefit. And the cross-disciplinary approach he championed has since become mainstream.
Is there movement in the chemical industry towards an integrated approach in the spirit of Ernest Solvay?
The basic message of Ernest Solvay is still relevant. You might contest specific parts of his scientific, social or economic vision, but his drive towards an integrated approach and balance between economy, profitability, industrial innovation, respect for people and social issues is still a valid programme today.
In your lecture, you said that studying chemistry has become less popular among young people. Could such an integrated approach help to improve the image of the chemicals industry in their eyes?
Yes, definitely such an approach is a huge asset to bright young people. The chemical industry is aware of its image and is making efforts to better communicate all that it is doing. Responsible Care has been a response by the chemical industry to attain continuous improvements in its health, safety and environment performance together with open and transparent communication. REACH has also been helpful in increasing the credibility and responsibility of the industry.
However we still need to do more. The Chemical industry can contribute to the main challenges affecting mankind in the coming decades but it needs to be less defensive and reach out to people to help them understand all the innovations that it enables. I am convinced that without chemistry and a chemical industry we could not find solutions to many of the challenges affecting us.
In the 18th century, Malthus said that if the world's population continued to grow at the same pace, it would be impossible for the earth to provide food and a decent life for the increasing population. Some centuries later, we can now say that it has been possible to find solutions to these difficulties. Why? Because of technological and scientific progress! And chemistry was part of that general progress enabling the planet to achieve more than it could one or two centuries ago, in terms of food, habitat, health, and so on. To avoid a Malthusian check in the XXI century, it is clear that sustainable development is more and more becoming the key for the development of the chemical industry. At Solvay, we have a beautiful example of this which is the Solar Impulse Plane, a project launched by Bertrand Picard. We are one of the main sponsors of this project, contributing Solvay products and know-how to make it possible for a plane to fly around the world by night as well as by day with only solar energy. When the idea was first raised people said it was impossible. Today, the plane has already flown for 26 hours non-stop. This is precisely the kind of dream which can convince young people of the value of pursuing careers in science.
Should there be a better dialogue between society and the chemical industry about the future?
The short answer is yes. Chemistry will be crucial in making our societies more sustainable. People are naturally concerned about new scientific breakthroughs which haven't been tried and tested. It's our job to demonstrate their value. We also need to address the NIMBY* effect. You have to find a balance between the interests of the community and those of individuals. If you open a factory or put up windmills in a specific area, it might create some problems, but this is a price worth paying if it is in the interest of the general community. The closing ceremony of the 2011 International Year of Chemistry which will take place on 1 December in Brussels will be an excellent opportunity to have an open and frank dialogue about the future of chemistry and its role in tackling the huge challenges facing us all. I hope that many of your readers will join us for what will be a truly exceptional day.
* Not In My Backyard
Image: Virginia Mercouri from ECHA Communications, Executive Director Geert Dancet and Mr Alexis Brouhns at the inauguration of the Solvay meeting room at ECHA. Mr Brouhns gave Mr Dancet the photo of the first world Physics Council in Brussels in 1911.
Ernest Solvay (16 April 1838 - 26 May 1922)
The Belgian industrialist Ernest Solvay (1838–1922) developed with his brother a new process for the industrial production of sodium carbonate. He supported physics and chemistry, among other sciences, in many ways, and founded the International Solvay Institute for Physics in 1912 and the International Solvay Institute for Chemistry in 1913. In 1911, Solvay organised the famous first International Physics Council in Brussels. It was a gathering of many of the leading physicists of the time as well as future Nobel laureates. In the same year, Solvay also supported the creation of the International Association of Chemistry Societies. The association was the predecessor of IUPAC, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry. Ernest Solvay introduced the 19th century pensions for workers, an eight-hour work day and paid vacations, all innovations that were ahead of their time.
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