Interview: SCI President Paul Drechsler CBE

4 July 2022 | Muriel Cozier

Paul Drechsler CBE becomes SCI’s new President at the 141st Annual General Meeting on Wednesday 6 July. In his first interview in this role, at a pivotal time in the charity’s history, Paul sets out what he sees as some of the main challenges the chemistry-using and science sectors face, and what might be learned from other industry sectors.

You have a long career across many business sectors. Focusing on your time in the chemical sector, where you worked for ICI for 25 years, what do you believe are the biggest challenges the sector faces over the next five to ten years?

When I think of where the world is at this time, I am reminded that the Japanese symbol for ‘crisis’ is also the symbol for ‘opportunity’. We are seeing significant global challenges at the same time as major geopolitical shifts. Some of these challenges may also represent some of our greatest opportunities.

Science is at the very core of how we can tackle climate challenges. Our response to dealing with carbon emissions, particularly from big industrial complexes, will demonstrate how the chemical sector is adapting. Science is crucial in how we tackle food crises and in feeding a growing population.

While we have been aware of the limitations related to land available for cultivating crops and keeping animals, we are now much more aware of the major interruption that the war in Ukraine is having on access to grain supplies. Science is finding solutions to new crops and ways to manage available land.

These challenges, among others, may be great opportunities; I believe that SCI has a key role to play in how we bring together the diverse parts of the SCI community to collaborate and share ideas to tackle these challenges faster than ever before.

As President of SCI, how do you think the charity can work with the chemical and chemistry-using sector to address these challenges?

I’m looking forward to learning more about the scope and impact of SCI. I believe that the ongoing work of the charity – convening people, disseminating knowledge and supporting collaboration is essential. Diversity, in all its forms, must also remain an essential part of the charity’s ongoing work. Without doubt, diversity in terms of thought and perspective are needed to help drive the innovation that is required to deal with the challenges we are aware of and those that are yet to emerge.

I also believe SCI is a fantastic vehicle for recognising success and communicating that success to as wide an audience as possible. A lot of great innovation is being done that has yet to receive the recognition that it deserves. I also believe that we can be impactful in the area of ESG [environmental, social, and corporate governance], including leading discussions on transparency and regulation.

With your experience across various business sectors, is there anything that the chemistry-using sector can learn from other business areas as it looks to address the challenges?

One of the joys of science is that we can learn from all sectors. While leading Melinex Polyester Films, one of the process challenges around speed of production was eventually solved by our brilliant process engineers adapting solutions already in use in the paper processing industry.

Perhaps one of the areas that the chemical sector can engage in more strongly is in understanding consumer markets. Most industries are now well aware of the importance of engaging and understanding what their target market wants. The fast-moving consumer goods industry is excellent at spotting opportunities and developing markets that consumers need. The same can work in reverse.

Much of what I had learned working the process industry I was able to call on during my time as leader of a construction company. For example, I was able to apply systems and controls used in the process industry, albeit in a different way, in the construction sector. The reality is we never stop learning, and learning from a diversity of people is key to innovation.

As Chancellor of Teesside University, what are your thoughts on the current provision for supporting research and potential spinout businesses?

Not only are universities pivotal in the success of the UK economy; they are a vital partner for business. They are the hubs of innovation and universities across the world are at the heart of developing solutions to national and international issues. Without doubt, in the UK, universities are core to the success of our regions. Teesside University has played an incredible role in attracting talented students with ideas and energy.

There aren’t many places in the world that can rival the UK’s university system. For example Cambridge, Oxford and the London Universities axis combine to provide an unrivalled platform on which to embark on scientific endeavour. The breadth of opportunity enables the UK to undertake world-class study and research which can ensure that new ideas will be transitioned into transformational and successful businesses.

The UK government has a push to ‘level up’ the country. What are your thoughts on progress in this area so far, and do you see the whole of the UK benefitting?

I would say if the UK is to ‘level up’ it must start with schools, and skilling youth for the future. There will be no ‘levelling up’ if we do not have the skilled people to engage in an increasingly competitive world. To this end, I am of the opinion that science and digital skills are absolutely fundamental in this endeavour. There is a huge opportunity to attract more girls to the sciences, as not enough see themselves as part of the science and digital revolution that is taking place right now.

As a champion of young people in business, how do you think SCI and similar organisations can boost the profile of science as a rewarding career path?

I would say that we need to be in a place where we are supporting and championing our entrepreneurs and innovators, something I know that SCI was built on. By supporting these businesses and individuals to get stronger, they are then in a position to attract and bring on new talent. But the new talent, as I mentioned, has to be developed through this country’s primary, secondary and university system that creates an environment that will nurture the ideas of our younger people, from all backgrounds.

I would echo what many people have said, in that the development of a vaccine for covid-19 and the highly successful deployment has been a great boost for UK science and is something we must harness as an example of the exciting opportunities that science provides. Again, I believe SCI has set out on a great journey to share the knowledge that is being developed by early career researchers, as seen by the charity’s involvement in COP26 and the platform it gave to young scientists.

You were on the judging panel of the Black British Business Awards 2021 – Professional Services Category. Could you share your thoughts on diversity in the chemical sector, and what, if anything, can be done to increase participation of people from a wider cross section of society in the chemical and sciences sector?

I am one of very many people who saw the tragic death of George Floyd during 2020 and had to ask myself what more can be done to change things. Back in the days when I worked for ICI, women’s equality was a priority issue. I would say it still is, but thankfully after many decades of talking we are making real progress in boardrooms across the UK.

I have always felt it was important to try to understand the issues that are faced by the most disadvantaged in our society. Having served on Teach First for six years, an organisation that is focused on ensuring that the education system benefits every child, it is sad to see so few Principals in schools are from Black, Asian & other Ethnic Minority backgrounds. I think that it fair to say that many children from ethnic minorities are falling at the first hurdle, as they are still finding it hard to see themselves represented in many parts of society and business.

I believe that great sponsors and mentors are key to increasing visibility and building the confidence of underrepresented groups within the science community. I know for sure that while building my career at ICI it was those people who saw my potential that gave me the support and confidence to develop my career.

One of the things that the chemical industry is great at, is getting the most out of its built assets. Surely we can apply that skill set to develop people so that we get the most from the incredible and diverse talent base that this that this country has?

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