RACI 2017 — chemophobia and green chemistry

Tuesday, 25 July, 2017

It’s a sad era for chemistry when you can buy chemical-free water, in a chemical-free plastic bottle, to wash down your chemical-free pills from your chemical-free pharmacist, says Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel.

Speaking at the RACI Centenary Congress in Melbourne, Finkel said nothing has been chemical-free since the Big Bang, and an Australia without the products created by chemists would be a nightmare.

Finkel reminded delegates of some of the ways that chemists are improving lives, including: CSIRO’s paints for Boeing jetliners; cleaning up drug manufacture; identifying enzymes that allow certain worms to chomp through plastic; and turning bottles into fuels. 

The Chief Scientist also presented a formula for impact, for chemists to continue to tackle and solve the big societal issues. His advice to those on the “frontline of chemophobia” was to bear the three Ps in mind — permission, purpose and perspective. 

“Permission means seeking and earning a social licence to operate. And we need it for the most pragmatic of reasons. It’s a democracy out there, and chemophobes vote.

“Effective regulations give us the opportunity to reflect critically on what we do and consult with the people affected by our products and actions.

“And for those who play by the rules, they provide a competitive edge: a stable policy environment for investors and a quality reputation for Australian products. In all these ways, regulations can assist us to live up to the promise of green chemistry.”

The case for effective regulation, as opposed to less regulation or a blanket ban, could be made using the second P — purpose, said Finkel.

“Purpose means seeing beyond a product or process to its applications. We do need to demonstrate that chemical X is safe — but we also need to explain the reason we use chemical X in the first place. And the costs that would result if we took chemical X away. To have that conversation, we need our own line of sight to the way that our ideas can be used or abused. We need to speak in terms of problems and solutions for communities; not just products and processes for chemists.

“And so to my final P — perspective. And I want to emphasise that it is perspective — not perfection. If perfection is your goal, you are doomed to disappointment.”

It’s too expensive to be perfect and too dangerous to compromise, Finkel said. “So we have to optimise — and to optimise we need to be able to learn. And chemists know this: you are constantly balancing the cost of the inputs against the speed of the process, against the environmental impacts of the by-products, ad infinitum.

“You will also be far more likely to win government and community support if you can demonstrate your understanding of their concerns. The best project proposals have the affected people onside to start with,” he said. 

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