The chemists follow the historians meeting Puffles


A talk about sustainability by Cambridge Chemist Dr John Emsley – with some challenges for scientists on how to engage with local democracy & the need to learn about politics if they want to make a bigger impact

I stumbled across this talk about 36 hours before it started (see here for the details). With my former climate change policy adviser hat on, I thought this was well worth going to because I’d not seen sustainability approached from a purely chemistry perspective. I wanted to get a feel for what the mindset might be. Hence going to a talk organised by the Cambridge/Mid Anglia branches of the Royal Society of Chemistry that was on my doorstep seemed like a reasonable starting point.

I found the talk very interesting & learnt lots, but in an audience of about 30 of us I get the feeling that the ‘chemistry’ bit wasn’t too taxing for the rest of the audience. There were a number of concepts that I was vaguely familiar with – such as converting food waste into methane to burn & generate electricity, to others such as fertilisers. There were others which had me scratching my head – the concept of deep-mining for fertilisers to spread on fields (See here). How many people know of the mine’s existence, let alone our dependence on its output for fertilising fields of intensive farming? And an industrial operation like that must have more than a few greenhouse gas emissions.

Lots of the ‘how’ but little of the ‘why’

What I found interesting about Dr Emsley’s talk wasn’t just the content he included, but also by what he didn’t cover. We had an interesting exchange in the Q&A about this, because I wanted to tease out some of the public policy issues from him and the audience. He also kindly gave me a copy of one of his books. (Thank you!) The one he referred to in his talk was A healthy, wealthy, sustainable world. Recognising the need to reach out to a wider audience, he also turned that book into a novel – Islington Green – about the challenges a couple faced trying to turn towards a more sustainable lifestyle. Something for people in other subject areas to try as well?

The classic example of the ‘how’ but not the ‘why’ was his case study of biofuels. He spoke well about what the demands would be on agriculture of quenching the thirst of the best part of 30 million vehicles, talking about the evolution of biofuels from a chemistry perspective and their chemical elements. As I mentioned to Marie, someone who I met through Transition Cambridge, the problem isn’t how you fuel 30 million cars, it’s how you deal with the problem of congestion. Hence the wider cultural issue for me was how chemists define the problems that they are trying to solve.

I’m trying to avoid the word ‘chemicals’ deliberately on the grounds that the word has negative connotations outside a science field. It’s one that bad marketing people try to use to spin ‘environmentally friendly’ or ‘natural’ products as being good for you as opposed to stuff with ‘chemicals’ in them. ****EVERYTHING IS MADE UP OF CHEMICALS OF ONE SORT OR ANOTHER****

Well…almost – unless you are heading into the world of what my science teacher from school said was beyond chemistry and into the world of physics. I have no idea why I remember it but he said that the smallest component as far as the field of chemistry is concerned is the atom. Once you start looking at the makeup of the atom, you’re into physics. Now, this was in the mid-1990s. But then Pluto was still a planet in the mid 1990s. So…scientists reading this. Have I still got things right or have we discovered new stuff since then?

My challenge to the scientists in the room.

I told them I was a non-scientist – with my education extending little further than GCSE level. I then put the words of this blogpost into a challenge for them: Which of them is going to put together the series of sequenced evening classes that will teach adults about science and new scientific discoveries that have occurred since they/we left school? It’s also something I have included in my living manifesto. (Theme 4 – learning for living).

Chemistry captured by the corporations

I was halfway back walking home when it suddenly occurred to me that so much of what was covered by Dr Emsley’s talk was ‘macro-chemistry’ – really really big industrial operations featured in his case study that inevitably needed some sort of state involvement, even if only as a regulator. A quick search for who does the sponsoring for an innocuous event to the outsider – such as this one – shows just how closely linked corporations are to chemistry research. This isn’t a benign disinterested ‘follow the science’ link either. This was shown by the case study Dr Emsley showed with Shell and the polymer ‘Carilon’ – see here. What struck me was how Shell started something, then discontinued its production and work on it not for ‘chemistry’ reasons but because as Dr Emsley said, the corporation they decided to move out of that field of work. This was despite the polymer showing huge potential in various applications.

In example after example, I made the link between the size of some of the interests concerned, and how those interests may not necessarily be the same as those of chemistry research. As Dr Emsley said towards the end, there were a whole host of factors he had not considered (deliberately) in his talk – such as political, economic and sociological for example. His remit was to examine an issue which he cares about – sustainability – through the prism of his experience as a chemist.

The gap between science and politics

This was where I made my plea to the audience to get involved in politics and public policy. It reflected the point made by Dr Emsley about the population explosion in recent decades – exploring the consequences of the likely population in 2050. (See here). One of the points he made was that chemistry had given humanity the tools to control population growth (through various forms of contraception) in the 1960s – but that ‘something had gone wrong’ in the implementation. He declined to explore what the reasons of this were.

The big barrier Dr Emsley said he has in engaging with politics is that his local MP is not someone like Dr Julian Huppert (pictured here with Puffles). It’s someone diametrically opposed to much of what Dr Huppert stands for – though I’ll refrain from naming the individual. My point in general to the audience (I had Puffles sitting next to me for impact) was that at some point, they were going to have to engage in the democratic/political process if they wanted their ideas to be heard in the corridors of power. That involves familiarisation with something that either a subject area they may not like – politics, and/or trying to understand a way of working that may not sit easily with how they work. For example in science you follow the evidence and base your conclusions on the results of lots of experiments. In politics, it feels all too often that you decide what your conclusions are going to be before you start off, then you look for the evidence to back them up. Policy-based evidence-making. You can get away with it in an undergraduate essay, but you can’t get away from it if you are trying to launch a war on the basis of it. Not if you want your political legacy left intact.

“So…did you convince them to vote for Puffles then?”

For those of you that don’t know, Puffles is a candidate for the Coleridge ward in the Cambridge City Council 2014 elections. (See here). Yeah – I’m standing under my social media persona ‘Puffles the dragon fairy‘ because in politics and public policy circles, Puffles is more well known than me.

What I learnt was that the science community in East Anglia vastly underestimates their potential influence in local democracy. The mid-Anglia section of the Royal Society of Chemistry has the best part of 3,000 members alone. (See here – how old-skool is that map?!?) That could be the difference between Dr Rupert Read getting elected ahead of say Labour’s Alex Mayer in the European Elections on the 22 May. I’ve deliberately mentioned those two for a future blogpost. Why don’t we see more scientists engaging in local democracy?

Actually, the dated appearance of the mid-Anglia branch web page matters. This is something that is symptomatic of various pockets of Cambridge. The RSC Mid-Anglia branch is a busy, vibrant one. But for the talk I was at, and as I discussed with Marie, it could have had far more people from much more diverse backgrounds had they properly advertised it through social media. This isn’t just an RSC problem in and around Cambridge. This is a problem that the whole of Cambridge faces. This is why the digital, dynamic and passionate driver/common links are ever so important. Yet at the same time, it’s not the stuff that sets local government alight. It’s simply not a ‘bread and butter’ constituency issue. When the likes of local street-pounding councillors and activists tell me that the issues around social media for local democracy I discuss are not raised on the doorstep, I believe them.

At the same time, if we want Cambridge to be greater than the sum of our parts, we as a city need to put the digital infrastructure to allow ‘civic society’ to flourish. At the moment, we’re a long way off from that.




2 thoughts on “The chemists follow the historians meeting Puffles

  1. The simple reason why chemistry is so dominated by corporations is because it is enormously expensive to do. Laboratory equipment is mind-blowingly expensive, and you by necessity need lots of different equipment even to perform relatively simple screening tests.

    At university level, chemistry is the most expensive degree course to teach outside of medicine.

    Even academic chemistry gets huge amounts of industry funding. This effectively is because it is more tax efficient and allows companies effective access to cheaper post grads and post docs- but potentially at a cost with respect to intellectual property. Ideally the academics therefore are focusing on the fundamentals of science whilst the in house industrial scientists focus on innovation/new products. There is overlap and we do do fundamental research in industrial labs- because we can do this in secret and so stop our rivals getting an inkling of where our next big breakthrough might be.

    Developing new chemicals/materials/products in the broad umbrella of “chemistry” and bringing them to market costs far too much, generally, for there to be any way in which small businesses can really hope to exist.

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