The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) latest international rankings for education – the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) tests – have been in the news this week. The Pisa tests are widely recognised as the most influential rankings in international education, based on tests taken by more than 500,000 15-year-old secondary school pupils, including 12,000 in the UK.
Apart from a lack of overall improvement, despite all the reviews, refocusing, restructuring of education, etc, there is potentially critical impact on the UK chemistry and chemical-related industries as a result of the UK slipping further down the league tables for science and maths. In 2012, out of 65 participating countries, the UK had slipped in science from 16th to 21st place, and now finds itself with other countries with similar performance ratings in science like Australia, Austria, Czech Republic, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Slovenia and Switzerland.
The UK’s performance in maths is slightly worse, with the UK classified as ‘average’ in 26th place.
As the chief executive of the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE), Dr David Brown commented: ‘The UK has some world-class industries in the chemical and process sector like oil and gas, pharmaceuticals, food and energy production, which are vital to our future economic prosperity. The success of these industries is under threat if our education system can’t produce enough talented people with high quality skills in maths and science.
In its report, the OECD illustrated the important role governments have in setting the right policy framework to improve educational performance. ‘The OECD is clear that “the quality of a school cannot exceed the quality of its teachers and principals”’, said Brown. ‘Countries like Brazil, Japan and Poland, which are improving their performance, have all established education policies to improve the quality of their teaching staff. Specific policies to raise standards include making it harder to achieve a teaching licence and by offering incentives for teachers to engage in in-service teacher-training programmes. We need to look at what other countries are doing and make sure we understand what is needed to stop science and maths teaching from stagnating.
‘The first thing we need to do is make sure that every primary school should have a qualified science teacher, and secondary schools should have science teachers that are qualified to degree level in their fields. Only then can we hope to inspire more young people to achieve higher standards and benefit industries reliant on high quality skills in maths and science.’
But a good basic science education is only part of the story in ensuring that the chemical sector attracts and keeps the high quality young talent that is needed to maintain competitiveness. The industry is not as labour-intensive as other manufacturing sectors so it is essential that when young people are prepared to join the industry, they are encouraged to stay.
In France, the chemical major Solvay has committed itself from 2013 to 2015:
As Jean-Pierre Clamadieu, Solvay’s ceo expressed it recently: ‘The chemical profession is complex and requires high-level skills. For instance, it takes two to four years of training to be a qualified operator at one of our industrial sites. With this generation contract, we are showing our commitment to employ young people, to transmit our quality knowledge and skills and to offer them a rich and diversified career. At the same time, we commit to retain and motivate our "seniors" who represent one-third of our staff and whose experience is absolutely essential to the company.’
What do you think the UK’s chemical sector and government should be doing to ensure that it continues to maintain a world-class labour-force?
Neil Eisberg - Editor
The UK’s renewable energy plans suffered a couple of setbacks this week. First came the news that PM David Cameron is considering scrapping green eco taxes, a move that would save £112 on the average annual fuel bill. And second, RWE Energy announced it has pulled the plug on its 240-turbine Atlantic Array windfarm project – which would have produced 1200MW of electricity, enough for up to 900,000 homes, according to reports on the BBC website.
While the exact reason for the pull-out remains unclear – a mixture of technical and financing issues is blamed – nevertheless, the UK government’s Department of Energy and climate Change (DECC) told that BBC that the country remains ‘well placed’ to meet its renewable energy target of 15% by 2020 and intends to deploy significant amounts of offshore wind.
Over in Germany, by contrast, Kurt Bock, chairman of the board of the world’s biggest chemical company BASF, believes that the country’s support for renewables has gone too far. At a press dinner in London last week, Bock pointed out that around 25% of German electricity is already produced from renewable energy, with government-backed price guarantees running into billions of dollars placing a huge cost burden on consumers and posing a real threat to business competitiveness, he argued.
In an interview recently in Der Spiegel journal, Bock commented on reports that EU legislators are currently considering scrapping green surcharge waivers for some energy intensive companies in Germany, including BASF. At BASF HQ in Ludwigshafen alone this would cost the group an extra €400m/year, Bock said – despite the fact that the site runs on its own highly efficient CHP (combined heat and power) plants.
Bock was particularly critical of German support for photovolatics, for which there is a high (€350/t) CO2 avoidance cost. Solar installation operators currently receive 10 times the market value of the power they produce, which is not sustainable, he said. And he also pointed, for example, to a windfarm in Germany where 20,000 litres of oil are being used annually to rotate the blades to prevent rusting – even while it is not yet connected to the grid.
Bock also had much to say about shale gas. While domestic shale gas would never reduce EU gas prices to US levels, Bock noted that it could satisfy German gas demand for at least 10 years. He dismissed fears about fracking as irrational and pointed out that BASF oil and gas subsidiary Wintershall has been extracting gas in Germany by a technique similar to fracking for decades, without incident. Yet for the past two years, BASF has been denied any further fracking permits.
Electricity in Germany is twice as expensive as in the US, while gas is triple the price, he said. If BASF’s Ludwigshafen site was located along the Mississippi rather than the Rhine, Bock commented in the Der Spiegel feature that the energy savings would be around €500m/year.
Cath O’Driscoll - Deputy editor
A journalist colleague approached me this week for some advice about people willing to provide an authoritative comment on stories in the pharmaceuticals sector. ‘It’s becoming harder,’ she complained. ‘No one seems to want to talk to us anymore.’ Scrolling back through recent C&I blogs, it’s clear that the problem is not just restricted to pharmaceutical stories. Depressingly, not one comment was posted against any of the previous seven C&I blogs – on topics as diverse as water availability following Typhoon Haiyan this month in the Philippines to a piece on the UK’s two planned nuclear reactors at Hinkley Point in Somerset. Only one appeared against a blog on the theme of the recent ACS meeting in Indianapolis below that.
C&I magazine’s Comment sections are suffering too, as are the magazine’s news pages. In fact, getting anyone to express a personal opinion about anything – and particularly in writing – is becoming increasingly difficult, even with the inducement of a small payment.
So what’s the problem? Social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook appear to be thriving, after all, even in an age of political correctness. Maybe as scientists it is simply the case that we are naturally – and sensibly – more cautious. Many companies, for example, now insist on vetting every word their employees choose to publish, even in some cases extending their approval processes to scientific book reviews.
True, there are occasionally times when saying exactly what you actually think is not necessarily such a good idea, as, for example, after the scandal that followed the hacking a couple of years ago of climate change emails from the University of East Anglia.
By and large, however, expressing an opinion can only be a good thing and should be encouraged. Scientific decision-making relies, after all, on proper informed debate – on seeking the opinions of all those with a view on a particular topic before arriving at a conclusion of our own. In the case of C&I ’s news stories, for instance, how are we to judge the merits of a particular piece of research if no one is willing to provide an independent expert view of a paper’s worth?
As for C&I ’s blogs, meanwhile, it would be nice as well to hope that just occasionally someone was actually reading…
Cath O’Driscoll - Deputy editor
Anyone interested in contributing Comment or opinion pieces to C&I or in writing book reviews should contact email@example.com
Of all the many harrowing images that followed the news of Typhoon Haiyan this week, one of the most shocking was surely the TV news coverage of people resorting to filtering water into a bucket through a strip of cloth on the street. For those caught up in a natural disaster, water security becomes a top priority, more important even than food and shelter. Without safe and reliable sources of water, many more thousands of people are at risk of death or disease as a result. Yet time and again as every new disaster unfolds on our TV screens, we see reports of people struggling to find access to this basic human need.
The big question for most C&I readers, as for most other educated members of the general public, must surely be why? Judging by the number of stories in the magazine, there would appear to be no end of cheap and simple technologies available for water purification. Solar disinfection or SODIS, for example, requires no more than a PET plastic bottle and sunlight to effectively kill bacteria responsible for most waterborne diseases, as well as most viruses, protozoa and their cysts (C&I, 6, 42, 2013). Alternatively, other reports have involved using seeds, nanoparticles or even scraps of plastic.
Countries such as the Philippines are not so poor that they cannot afford to invest in effective water security measures. An average of 19 typhoons – known locally as bagyos – hit the country every year, according to an entry on Wikipedia.
About 10,000 people are already thought to have been killed when Typhoon Haiyan struck at the weekend. Around 4.5m more people are estimated to have been affected. The humanitarian aid will no doubt run into many millions. What is needed, however, is not just money but education. People need to be taught how to better respond and cope in an emergency situation – and be given the necessary basic tools for survival in the event.
Preventing natural disasters from occurring is beyond the realms of current technology, but we can now predict with reasonable accuracy when most of them will occur. Couldn’t more be done, then, to protect those affected from some of the inevitable consequences? Surely, there has to be a better solution than filtering water through a tee shirt?
At the annual meeting of the European Petrochemical Association (EPCA) in Berlin, held in early October, Mohamed Al-Mady, vice chairman and ceo of Saudi Basic Industries Corporation, better known as Sabic, called on the European chemical industry and various governments to focus on more resource and cost efficient manufacturing, target incentives for innovation at the development stage and institute a robust regulatory framework based on good science with clear goals. ‘Europe faces a new reality…..Governments must proactively support this transition – it cannot be done by industry alone.’
Certainly the UK chemical industry believes that government has a role to play in its future development, but the signals from various UK governments have been mixed over the years. It did work with the industry over the REACH legislation but elsewhere support has been mixed and focused on the high tech end of anything chemically related. But as many political observers have commented, and even former prime ministers have pointed out, many interventions are driven by ‘events’.
Perhaps the UK government didn’t expect it would be thrust into the arena quite so dramatically when the Ineos Grangemouth dispute blew up spectacularly only days later, especially as it was about to meet with industry representatives to discuss proposals about delivering chemistry-fuelled growth for the UK economy. The Grangemouth dispute quickly flew up the political agenda with the referendum on Scottish independence as a major driving factor.
Thankfully the Ineos situation was resolved relatively swiftly by a total retreat by the main trades union concerned, which appeared not to believe what Ineos’ hard headed boss Jim Radcliffe was saying, despite his previous track record. But the problems for the chemical industry in the UK are unlikely to go away so quickly, and government involvement is essential to maintain its manufacturing record.
Successive governments appear at best to have taken the sector’s performance as the leading UK exporter as a given, or at worst, believed that chemicals represent a sunset industry, best left to fade away. And as C&I has pointed out, those with long enough memories will remember that we have been down this path before with the Innovation & Growth Teams of the early 2000s.
Now the UK’s chemical and chemistry-related industries have developed a joint approach as the Chemistry Growth Partnership (CGP) to present a comprehensive strategy with a vision of 50% growth by 2030. It was just extremely unfortunate that the launch of this strategy coincided with the high-profile discussions around the future of Scotland’s major industrial site, particularly as the Chemical Industries Association had drawn up a specific Scottish strategy within the overall plans.
The CGP has identified a number of key challenges including energy security, innovation and the re-building of UK supply chains; the latter being something highlighted by SCI president, Paul Booth, who also happens to be Sabic’s UK chairman, when he revealed some of the CGP’s thinking earlier at the SCI AGM (C&I, 2013, 8, 4).
It was particularly unfortunate that the first meeting of the CGP with the UK business secretary Vince Cable and business minister Michael Fallon was overshadowed by the Ineos negotiations because the general media was too tied up in one chemical story to actually cover a second, especially one that is essentially about good news.
One thing this unfortunate timing may bring about, however, is a greater appreciation and understanding by the general public, and also hopefully politicians of all persuasions, about the major role the chemical industry plays in the UK economy. Sabic’s ceo has it right; only through a partnership between industry and government is the chemical sector going to survive the current and up-coming challenges that include shale gas, recruitment, innovation and productive manufacturing.
It‘s seven years since my last CPhI meeting and a lot had changed in the intervening years. This year the event, aimed at pharma and fine chemicals manufacturers and contract research organisations, is being held in Frankfurt, Germany, with around 30,000 attendees expected to visit the city’s vast Messe convention centre between 22-24 October, according to organisers. But while CPhI has grown in size, many in the industry remain concerned about the same issues, particularly about growing competition from Asia, and ensuring the quality and safety of ingredients derived from increasingly complex supply chains.
In 2013, India’s pharma exports currently stand at around $14.7bn (2012-2013), with an ambitious government target to reach $25bn by 2016. India became recognised by UNICEF as the world’s largest supplier of generics in 2012, and generous tax breaks such as a weighted tax reduction of 150% for R&D expenditures and 19 dedicated Social Economic Zones are all helping to stimulate pharma investment. ‘During the last three years India’s exports of pharmaceuticals have been growing at 17%. We are expecting CAGR of around 20% for the next five years,’ said Appaji P.V., director general, Pharmexil.
Changing regulations, meanwhile, also mean that the pharma industry globally increasingly has to tighten supply chain security, commented Frithjof Holtz, vice chairman of the European Fine Chemicals Group (EFCG). Regulators are no longer interested only in the risks from active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) but also from the fillers or excipients and other ingredients included in drug formulations, Holtz pointed out, and are placing more responsibility on companies to carry out physical audits of their suppliers. A new independent EXCiPACT certification scheme, he believes, should help alleviate some of the burden by providing a third party auditing service for firms struggling to carry out audits, often for hundreds of products.
However, the good news for Western European pharmaceutical manufacturers is that, while the trend for high volume, large capacity pharmaceuticals to move to Asia is likely to continue, many of the new drugs now appearing on the marketplace are more specialised and technically demanding to produce, noted SAFC’s Andreas Weiler. The cost of drug manufacture is just 1-10% of the final overall drug price, Weiler pointed out, while 80% of pharma innovation is carried out by small companies more interested in productivity than cost. And with high attrition rates of 10-20% in Asia, that often makes Europe more attractive for companies hoping to bring products to market more quickly.
Nuclear energy is back in the headlines again! While the miseries continue at Japan’s wrecked Fukushima nuclear site, with continuing reports of leaks and even workers being drenched in radioactive water, in the UK there has been some welcome news that the first two new reactors at Hinkley Point in Somerset are moving a little closer to becoming a reality. There has also been further positive news regarding UK nuclear safety from the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
UK energy secretary Ed Davey has said that a breakthrough has been achieved in the negotiations over the UK government support that would be available to the Hinkley Point project leader, France’s nuclear company EDF, and its potential partner, state-owned China General Nuclear.
This announcement has broken the grumbling slow progress to restart the UK’s nuclear programme; however, although the UK government may try to take credit for the deal, it is also likely to be influenced in some way as a result of the EU’s decision to exclude nuclear energy from the renewable subsidy guidelines for EU member states. Nuclear subsidies will now be considered on a case-by-case basis after the new guidelines are published in November 2013 for the period 2014-20, but the impact on the UK programme is so far unknown.
Meanwhile, following a recent inspection visit, the IAEA has praised the improvements that have been made to the UK regulatory safety framework, saying that the country ‘has made ‘considerable progress since reviews in 2006 and 2009’, although further recommendations aimed at strengthening the effectiveness of the framework were made as well as regards the control of radioactive discharges and environmental monitoring.
Elsewhere, announcements about other new reactor projects have been surfacing in, for example, Bangladesh, which has
But finally there has been an interesting twist to global nuclear arms reduction, which has surfaced with the news that the deal, the Highly Enriched Uranium Purchase Accord, whereby the US has been using uranium fuel from disarmed Russian warheads to generate about half of the US nuclear energy is coming to an end.
Through the Accord, which was signed after the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, Russian nuclear weapons grade uranium was downgraded in Russia, and the low enriched material was sold to the US where it was turned into nuclear fuel. The deal will finish in December 2013, as Russia believes the US had been getting the uranium at too low a price and generating energy ‘on the cheap’. In future, the uranium will be sold to the US at market prices.
In addition to these higher prices, the US is also facing potential shortages of lithium, which is critical to operation of more than half of the total US reactors. According to the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), only Russia and China still produce significant quantities of lithium and this supply is dwindling. Lithium-7 is a byproduct of tritium production for the manufacture of hydrogen bombs, and US production ceased in 1963, while the subsequent arms reduction treaties have diminished the need for tritium for weapons production. The GAO has calculated that it would cost $10-12m and take five years to re-establish production of lithium-6 from lithium 7.
So while the US is facing significant issues regarding nuclear energy production, and a number of countries around the world have decided to exit nuclear energy, the UK and a smaller number of other countries are moving ahead with their nuclear plans. Whether we like it or not, nuclear energy is more reliable than most of the other non-fossil fuel alternatives, and we ignore its use at our peril.
Returning from a conference in the US last weekend, I discovered that the teams from the Transportation Security Administration that were x-raying bags and patting down passengers prior to boarding their flights were effectively working for free. They were all dressed in their uniforms and conducting their work efficiently and in a friendly way, but they weren’t being paid.
It seems incomprehensible for anyone coming from Europe, for example, that just because the government can’t agree on a budget or changes to the healthcare system, the whole process of running a country, and not just a small country at that, just stops. Now we do have some experience of countries in Europe that have continued to operate without an effective government; Belgium managed quite satisfactorily for almost two years without a government.
But for such a shutdown to continue in the world’s leading economy for what is now over a week is beyond belief, and the anomalies that have been thrown up make it even more unbelievable. Are the members of the US Senate and the House of Representatives also going without pay? Err, no! What about the US troops that carried out the anti-terrorist raids in Libya and Somalia over the weekend? Quite rightly, they continue to draw pay. But not to pay the people who are charged with preventing domestic terrorism?
But all this affects the scientific and business worlds as well; with government agencies from the US Environmental Protection Agency and NASA to the Food & Drug Administration, the Center for Disease Control and the National Science Foundation all shut down – and employees told not to even answer mobile phones or emails at home. In some cases, essential services are being maintained but all non-essential services have been stopped, everything from employees cleaning up toxic superfund sites to those assessing to those accepting new drug submissions. Even the Securities & Exchange Commission will see its operations run down delaying the filing and registrations of IPOs.
So the health, security and economic fate of the nation is at present is in limbo.
Here in the UK, our government and civil services may not be perfect, and there may be much that we would like to change, but the idea that everything should grind to a halt because the government and the opposition can’t agree would be unbelievable, as well as being totally unacceptable. Let’s hope the US can get itself sorted out, because the potential impact on the rest of us could eliminate any positive economic improvements that we are being told are now upon us.
The internet can be of great benefit or a thing of evil, as recent newspaper headlines have highlighted. Reports of internet bullying, for example, have suggested that this phenomenon is rampant among teenagers in the UK, leading to self-harm and even suicide. Meanwhile, this same tool can also be a route to more information than it is sometimes possible to comprehend. Like all new advances it is not the tool itself, but the way it is used, and human beings seem to have an unending ability to find the downside of, and abuse, almost every new innovation.
So much so that the US publication Popular Science has decided to cease publishing comments about stories that appear in the publication; and the reason given? ‘Comments can be bad for science’, according to Suzanne LaBarre, online content director, adding, however, that ‘it wasn’t a decision we made lightly’.
‘As the news arm of a 141-year-old science and technology magazine, we are committed to fostering lively, intellectual debate as we are to spreading the word of science far and wide. The problem is when trolls and spambots overwhelm the former, diminishing our ability to do the latter,’ she writes on the Popular Science website.
Now, debate is the life blood of science, and something that C&I itself encourages, but Popular Science has made its decision with the backing of some recent research that appears to support the view that even a ‘fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader’s perception of a story’.
The results of one US study, led by Dominique Brossard and Dietram Scheufele, of the University of Wisconsin and published in the New York Times, involved the reading of a fake blog post on nanotechnology by a group of almost 1200 individuals, who were then asked how they felt about the subject. The same individuals were then allowed to read either insult-laden or civil comments and then asked again how they felt about the topic.
The authors discovered that uncivil comments not only polarised readers but often changed the reader’s interpretation of the story itself. They ended up with a much more polarised view of the risks involve with nanotechnology, compared with those readers who had seen civil comments and continued to feel the same way as when first asked after reading the story. A similar study where there were firmly worded, but not uncivil, disagreements between commentators also had an effect of the readers’ perception of science.
‘If you carry out those results to their logical end – commentators shape public opinion; public opinion shapes public policy; public policy shapes how and whether and what research gets funded – you start to see why we feel compelled to hit the “off” switch,’ says LaBarre. ‘A politically-motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically-validated topics. Everything from evolution to the origins of climate change is mistakenly up for grabs again. Scientific certainty is just another thing for two people to “debate” on television.’
Pretty strong stuff, and perhaps something of an over-statement to UK C&I readers, but there is more than an element of truth about all this. We have all seen or heard such discussions between people who are not even novices regarding the subject they are talking about, and, more seriously, have major influence over public policy. We have a tendency to dismiss them but we do so at our peril.
Scientists have been hearing the same story about improving their communication of their science, and to judge by the current spate of tv programmes with science themes, and the inevitable scientific celebrities that they promote, there is a public appetite for more science. This may be a very good thing but we must all be on our guard against those who would try to change the public’s improving perception of science.
What do you think? And please post only civil comments here.
Neil Eisberg - Editor
Ageing is something that none of us can avoid, but the possibility of living forever has suddenly been hitting the headlines in recent days. Perhaps the announcement that sounded the most like science fiction, was from theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, who believes that technology could make it possible for one’s brain to continue living after the body has died. Appearing at the Cambridge Film Festival for the premiere of a documentary about his life, Hawking said: ‘I think the brain is like a program in the mind, which is like a computer. So it’s theoretically possible to copy the brain on to a computer and so provide a form of life after death.’
Hawking acknowledges, however, that such a feat is ‘beyond our present capabilities’, but, according to the Huffington Post, Russian multi-millionaire Dmitry Itskov hopes to someday upload the contents of a brain into a lifelike robot body as part of his 2045 Initiative.
So what is within our current capabilities to extend life? Certainly advances in hygiene and pharmaceuticals have made dramatic changes in the average lifespan in just over a century but what comes next?
Larry Page, ceo of the IT major Google, certainly believes further extension of life is achievable, and has put his money where his mouth is! Google is launching a new venture Calico, to be led by former ceo of Genentech Arthur Levinson, which will research new technology. Although Google has revealed few details, many observers believe that its expertise in data-processing will be used to look in a different way at age-related diseases.
Page believes that a radically different approach is likely to produce unlikely conclusions. Talking to Time magazine, Page asked: ‘Are people really focused on the right things? One of the things I thought was amazing is that if you solve cancer, you’d add about three years to people’s average life expectancy. We think of solving cancer as this huge thing that’ll totally change the world. But when you really take a step back and look at it, yeah, there are many tragic cases of cancer, and it’s very, very sad, but in the aggregate, it’s not as big an advance as you might think.’
Some might consider these comments somewhat hard-hearted but Page is a hard-headed business man. As such he and his new venture will indeed bring a new approach to changing people’s lives.
But as well as ageing affecting us as individuals and creating increasing loads on health services around the world, there is also an impact on companies apart from any lack of skilled individuals due to retirement. Ageing populations have a dramatic impact on purchasing and consumption as Paul Hodges will point out in his C&I webinar: The outlook for chemical demand in a world of ageing populations, to be broadcast on 9 October 2013 at 16.00pm UK time. To register, visit the C&I webpage.
None of us can stop the ageing clock, but, for better or worse, a lot of us are going to be around for a lot longer than we might have expected just a few years ago.
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