Alfred Oberholz says the EU's sustainable chemistry technology platform can help boost the European chemical community's competitiveness
Chemical innovation underlies the improved quality of life enjoyed by all European citizens. Europe’s goals to increase its competitiveness and reduce environmental impact can only be achieved with a significant contribution from chemistry. Chemistry can provide solutions to important societal issues such as energy supply, climate change, ageing population, food and health, among many others.
Europe is currently a world leader in chemicals production and chemistry research. The chemical industry supplies products to virtually all downstream industrial and consumer sectors. It is at the heart of the European economy providing revenues, exports and employment. It also acts as an important engine for innovation in other sectors.
However, the industry’s competitiveness is at risk due to cost competition from outside Europe, low market growth, and migration of customer industries. Improving both innovation and sustainability are essential to the future competitiveness and preservation of a viable chemical community (both industrial and academic) in Europe. Our knowledge and creativity are the key factors for creating competitive advantage. Investing in chemistry research as a major source of innovation is a clear necessity for Europe. However, EU chemical R&D expenditures are lower than in competing regions of the world like the US and China - and decreasing further.
The European technology platform for sustainable chemistry (SusChem) was initiated in 2004 to help foster and focus European research in chemistry and industrial biotechnology. The SusChem vision foresees a sustainable European chemical industry with enhanced global competitiveness and minimal environmental impact powered by a world-leading, technological innovative drive. It sees the chemical community as an essential and leading partner in the European knowledge-based economy providing growth and social equity for all its citizens.
Three critical technology areas have been identified where progress is required to fulfil this vision: industrial biotechnology, materials technology, and reaction and process design. SusChem is working with a variety of stakeholders to develop a strategic research agenda (SRA) that identifies the issues and challenges for research in these areas. The SRA will command broad academic, industrial and societal support and attract significant research funding from both public and private research budgets.
In addition, SusChem is focusing on more generic barriers to chemistry innovation in Europe. We must ensure that an effective regulatory and economic framework for chemical and biotechnological innovation is established in Europe so that research results can be effectively turned into innovation and market solutions.
SusChem is holding its third stakeholder workshop in London on 25 November, hosted by the RSC. The workshop will review the SRA and start developing a detailed implementation action plan. The plan will be completed during 2006 and will represent a significant contribution to the formulation of the seventh EU R&D framework programme, future framework programmes and other major collaborative research initiatives.
Within the chemical research community SusChem can help coordinate European, national and regional initiatives, working together with member states, related technology platforms and other organisations. SusChem will help build bridges between different chemistry disciplines and with other molecular sciences, technologies and engineering.
Just as importantly, SusChem can play a vital role in improving the public perception of chemistry in Europe. It clearly shows chemistry and the chemical industry as drivers of beneficial change for society and making products and processes more sustainable in all sectors.
SusChem is a unique opportunity for the chemical community in Europe to demonstrate and grow its strengths and contributions to society. Chemistry is here to stay in Europe - and so is SusChem.
Alfred Oberholz is member of the board, Degussa, and chairman-elect, SusChem board