Chemists form an international community. We have a common language, a shared pool of knowledge, and a passion for the creative and creating power of our discipline. No one can learn, teach or discover chemistry in isolation; science is a collaborative endeavor from bench to boardroom, from school to synchrotron. The UK will decide soon on whether its future will be in or out of Europe. Whatever the UK public decides, it won’t change the nature and future of chemical science, which demands a global vision to create a borderless territory of knowledge, of discovery without sovereignty.

The European community has built many programmes to advance science through collaboration – see Jon Cartwright’s thorough history. In the years to come, we will need more than ever to join forces and strengthen our community to rise to the great challenges of society. Energy, materials, food, water, health, processes and products; chemists can, should and will make a difference. As we work to recreate and reshape our molecular world to secure a sustainable future, so will chemistry change as a discipline and redefine its identity. Chemists will, inevitably, have to undergo the same evolution, making a vibrant, diverse and supportive community more important than ever before.

Chemistry is on its way to become a truly multidisciplinary science with major opportunities arising at the interfaces with medicine, biology and materials science. We all know that a discovery in the lab, for instance replacing a precious metal catalyst like palladium with a sustainable iron-based system, is not enough to forge a new chemical process. The complexity of global challenges demands international expert teams from the spectrum of science and engineering. The chemical industry already works internationally, marshaling a multinational talent, resource and funding infrastructure. 

Nurturing and preparing our students and early career researchers for this future is crucial. We need to expose them to the languages and challenges of other disciplines and introduce them to working in international settings. Again, European programmes play a major role in providing this experience, with many schemes offering grants and training networks for students and postdocs that help to build communities of next-generation chemists all over Europe. The European Research Council’s starting, consolidator and advanced grants have been highly effective in raising the level of competiveness of European science. They clearly facilitate the career path of emerging talents as well as give credit to the established figures who lead and organise them. The UK has been particularly successful in the ERC grant scheme.

Whether the UK chooses to remain or leave in the upcoming EU referendum is a serious question with serious consequences. But, far more serious and far more important is fostering a global scientific community. Membership of that union is our first priority.

Ben Feringa is a professor at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, and chair of the Chemistry World editorial board