The UK chemical industry is formulating a new road map for its future success, reports Elizabeth Willcocks

The UK chemical industry is formulating a new road map for its future success, reports Elizabeth Willcocks

A new year, a vibrant new chemical industry. At least that seems to be the message from the Department of Trade and Industry’s (DTI) Chemicals Innovation and Growth Team (CIGT), in its recently launched report, Enhancing the competitiveness and sustainability of the UK chemicals industry. According to Byron Grote, the CIGT’s chairman, the report will act as a ’road map for formulating the actions that need to be taken now to ensure a vibrant and competitive chemical industry in the UK for the future’. 

The chemical industry is an important part of the UK manufacturing sector and is vital to the UK economy, but few chemists would dispute that their industry currently faces a number of tough challenges. A poor public reputation (a recent poll highlighted that only 20 per cent of the public view the industry favourably), problems in recruiting young chemists and a weak record on innovation were among some of the issues that prompted the DTI to set up the CIGT in January 2002. The team now believes that the range of future possibilities for the chemical industry is captured in two possible scenarios: ’seizing the agenda to profitable growth’; and ’missed opportunities’. 

Seizing opportunities 
So, how does the industry ensure that it will be able to ’seize the agenda’? In its report, the CIGT makes a number of recommendations, focusing on the industry’s reputation, innovation and skills base and the challenge of sustainable development. One of its key messages is that the responsibility for change lies with the industry itself. However, the modern UK chemical industry is complex and diverse, with some 3500 separate companies. No single company is recognised as the industry leader and so the CIGT’s first recommendation was to form a Chemistry Leadership Council (CLC). 

The CLC is at the heart of the CIGT’s road map. Headed by Barry Stickings, chairman of BASF (UK/Ireland), the CLC will comprise six or seven leaders from the chemical industry, four or five leaders from outside the industry and representatives from academe and the government. It will work on all the challenges facing the chemical industry, including raising its public profile and giving the industry a voice. 

The CIGT’s second recommendation is for the CLC to establish a ’futures group’. Key tasks set for the futures group will be to ’develop the goal for the reputation the industry wishes to have’ and to ’establish the vision for sustainability’. Although public concern about the chemical industry is overwhelmingly linked to health and environmental issues, there is also work to be done in improving the level of trust in the industry to attract both potential employees and City investors. 

Innovative ideas 
The CIGT concluded that, while the chemical industry has a long tradition of innovation, its record for product innovation in recent years has been ’less strong’. The recent DTI R&D scoreboard highlighted the under-investment in R&D by the UK chemical industry (see Chem., Br., December 2002, p33) and this, according to the CIGT, is ’a core challenge to the industry’. In an attempt to raise the ambition for innovation across the whole industry, the CIGT has made several suggestions. 

Firstly, that the CLC should establish a central Chemicals Innovation Centre (CIC), which will help centres of excellence in their networking and knowledge transfer and to set priorities for, and encourage spending on, R&D. Together with the regional development agencies, government offices and the DTI Chemicals Unit, the CIC will promote the UK as a ’location of choice’ for start-up companies and new chemical ventures. 

Finally, the CLC and the DTI will review marketing excellence within the chemical industry to determine whether UK innovators are hindered by high prototyping costs or gaps in industrial marketing, for example, when compared with other countries. 

Skills for success 
A successful industry needs a workforce with the right skills at the right levels. The chemical industry today, however, is facing a shortage of skilled workers as an ageing workforce reaches retirement and numbers of young people recruited into the industry continue to fall. A recent MORI poll revealed that only 20 per cent of the public would actively seek work in the chemical industry. It is clear that the chemical industry needs to make its careers more attractive. 

In response to this challenge, the CIGT has recommended that the CLC should set up a skills network group that will define the precise nature of any skills gap within the industry. The skills network group will promote vocational training, with a ’learn-by-doing’ approach within UK companies. 

Together with professional bodies such as the RSC and the Institute of Chemical Engineers, the group will also promote ’up-skilling’ on a national level, encourage younger members of the industry to act as ambassadors for the industry, and generally encourage interest from a more diverse range of backgrounds. 

Looking to the future 
A deliberate omission from the CIGT report is any reference to the EU chemical strategy. As Grote explained: ’This was not because it was not considered important - it was and remains so - but because of the real risk that it would focus the debate too much on the shorter term and on one particular high-profile issue, at the expense of longer term and broader strategic issues and remedies’. 

The CIGT wants the government to play a supportive role in all of the recommendations made in the CIGT’s report. According to Grote, the CIGT will not ask the government for ’a major injection of money’, but insists that what is needed is a better use of the resources that already exist. The government will be extremely important in continuing to promote the chemical industry, particularly in enthusing young people about chemistry, science and engineering. The CIGT also hopes that the government will assist in nurturing chemical start-up companies in the UK by offering real location advantages like low business taxation. 

The CIGT hopes that by following its recommendations the UK chemical industry will grasp the opportunities available to it. The bottom line is that for success, the industry must be seen as part of the solution, not perceived as part of the problem. 

Source: Chemistry in Britain

The Chemistry Leadership Council

A new industry-led taskforce, known as the Chemistry Leadership Council (CLC), is at the heart of the CIGT’s plans to enhance innovation and growth in the chemical industry. The CLC will:

  • Seek to improve the industry’s sustainability, reputation, self-regulation and communication with stakeholders.
  • Set up a chemicals innovation centre to act as the specialist central hub for knowledge transfer through the networking of existing centres of excellence.
  • Promote the UK as a location of choice for start-ups in the chemical industry.
  • Carry out a review of marketing excellence within the sector.
  • Define the precise nature of any skills gaps, and work with skills providers to improve training in the industry.