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Praise where it is due

Posted 02/03/2011 by KatieJ

Chemicals, along with the rest of the manufacturing sector in the UK, have lived in the shadow of other GDP-boosting sectors, like financial services, for decades. Certainly successive UK trade and industry secretaries have praised the contribution the chemical sector makes to the UK economy, but generally only to chemical industry audiences. Preaching to the converted seems to be something that politicians appear to learn at their mothers’ knees.

Successive UK governments should not have been shy about praising industry sectors that fill their coffers with tax revenues, provide jobs for their populations and bring investment and revenues into the country. And with this should have come praise for the huge progress that has been made in safety, health and environmental issues. While many prefer not to believe what politicians actually say, there may have been some with whom that praise might have rung true and contributed in some way to confront the picture that environmentalist have been broadcasting loud and clear.

As a consequence, the standing of the chemical industry along with other manufacturing sectors like engineering has gradually fallen in society as the public has been persuaded that manufacturing is a dirty and unpleasant business. By comparison, the financial sector has been seen as clean cut and above-board in all senses of the word. And these views have not been limited to the UK, the picture has been the same around the developed world.

The events of recent years have certainly tarnished that image of the financial services sector, but there seems to be no sign of a change of heart as regards chemicals and the rest of its manufacturing brothers. Out of all the different parts of the chemical industry, pharmaceuticals have perhaps been the acceptable face but this sector in trying to emulate the financial whizzkids has now fallen foul of the vagaries of stock markets around the world, which seek constant growth, seemingly at any price – such as jobs and employees, as well as future prosperity, for example – in search of short term gain.

The pharma sector has recently seen sweeping cuts in employment levels as the day of the blockbuster departs and the emerging world provides cheaper production and now R&D. But while job losses in the manufacturing side of the business are to be lamented, most worrying are the job losses in the technical and scientific parts of the business; amongst the innovators and developers of tomorrow’s drugs.

As C&I pointed out some time ago, if the chemical sector wants to recruit the best graduates, post-grads and post-docs it can, then it is going to have to put its hands in its pockets and fund these leaders of tomorrow through their university experience as tuition fees will rocket in the very near future.

With the current emphasis on collaborations and partnerships with small and start-up companies to develop new drug treatments, the pharma sector would do well to look carefully at funding tuition fees as many of these new companies are being spun out of UK universities. GlaxoSmithKline is to be congratulated on its adoption of this approach, but funding 100 students is just a drop in the ocean of talent that may just evaporate if others do not follow this lead.

Neil Eisberg - Editor

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  • Anonymous said:
    02/03/2011 02:31

    It may be that the new giants of the chemical industry in the far east will contribute to UK universities by sponsoring their own young chemists to gain their graduate and postgraduate training in the UK. Regretably this is not likely to increase the body of homegrown skilled chemists.