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The RSC President's keynote speech to the 2011

The RSC President's keynote speech to the 2011 Science and the Parliament audience at Our Dynamic Earth, Edinburgh.

09 November 2011

Scotland has a long history of producing talented scientists and engineers and for many pioneering developments in science and technology that have spawned world class industries, helping to improve the health and quality of life for many.

We have an excellent opportunity today to discuss the effects on the Scottish economy of the chemistry community in Scotland - a key and productive part of this national science landscape.

The 2008 Science for Scotland report set out what the Government will do, in partnership, to build on "our world-class science community".

The theme of today, just as it was then, is about making better connections.

It is about utilising and supporting Scotland's science base to ensure faster growth in the economy. 

And it is about how all of us can sustain and build upon Scotland's traditional strength in science and use this to create wealth and employment.

Never in the 11 years we have been coming to Scotland for this event has there been a more uncertain economic outlook.

It is up to us, therefore, to ensure the vital role that science, and chemistry in particular, plays to the Scottish economy remains central to the government's plans for growth.

Science makes an enormous impact on our way of life.

The products of chemistry research are all around us - from the water we drink and the food we eat, to the clothes we wear, the cars we drive and the energy we use to heat our homes.

Last year, the RSC and Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council commissioned an independent study to examine how much chemistry research contributes to the UK economy.

The subsequent Oxford Economics report - The Economic Benefits of Chemistry Research to the UK - showed that chemistry-reliant industries contributed £258 billion to the UK economy in 2007 - equivalent to 21% of UK GDP - and supported six million jobs.

It also accounted for at least 15% of the UK's exported goods attracting significant inward investment.

The Scottish chemicals sector generates around £1.3bn in manufacturing exports and supports 84,000 jobs.

Scotland's strengths in translational medicine and contract research mean that we can double the economic contribution of the life sciences by 2020.

Emerging as a constant theme throughout our report was the benefit of collaboration.

The Chemistry Innovation Knowledge Transfer Networks, pioneered by Chemicals Northwest, provided examples of current collaborative projects.

Some of the examples they listed included collaborations between Herriot Watt and Ingenza Limited, Glasgow and GSK, and St Andrews and Chriotech Technology.

Scotland also benefits from having several highly ranked chemistry institutions as judged by the Research Assessment Exercise.

Of the 14 UK institutions that received 4* or 3* rankings for 70% or more of  their research activities, four are based here in Scotland - with the universities of Edinburgh and St Andrews, and the Universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde given joint results.

There are 12 universities and six colleges in total that have research and teaching excellence in chemistry and engineering. 

The RSC hopes that any expected rise in the university funding shortfall does not jeopardise this proud position.

Just last week the University of Strathclyde announced the opening of a new £36m research institute dedicated to developing new medicines.

The facility, in Glasgow, will bring together researchers in chemistry, biology and pharmacy, working together on new treatments for some of the UK's biggest health problems - namely, cancer, heart disease and stroke.

As the university principal Professor Jim McDonald said, the investment will help our scientists find new and better treatments to finding solutions to the global challenges of the 21st century.

And to ensure we meet those challenges, a further comprehensive plan for investing in skills, including school science teaching, for supporting research excellence and for encouraging innovation is needed for Scottish science to fulfil its potential.

The First Minister obviously had some of these matters in mind during his recent visit to Abu Dhabi. 

Mr Salmond's tour of the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology in Abu Dhabi led him to say links could be forged in renewable energy between Scotland and the United Arab Emirates.

Today is our Links Day - bringing together politicians and scientists to ensure those aims and aspirations have a greater chance of becoming a reality.

And investing in renewable energy is just one of the areas Scotland can be a world leader in.

Chemistry will have a demonstrable impact in the development of a low carbon economy thus fulfilling that Science for Scotland target of a greener and healthier country. 

The Scottish Government has adopted an ambitious target for renewable power of 80 per cent of consumption by 2020. 

This will require more efficient, cheaper solar technology, less wasteful methods of producing goods, improved transport and energy storage technologies, such as batteries and many other challenges.

These challenges will generate thousands of highly-skilled jobs in the green economy.

Earlier this year, the RSC responded to a Scottish government consultation entitled Building a Smarter Future: towards a Sustainable Scottish Solution for the Future of Higher Education.

A few of the key issues raised in the response included:

. Greater support for STEM subjects in higher education must be provided to generate a steady supply of talented, highly-skilled individuals;

. Investment in the chemical sciences over the next 15 years - this will enable Scotland to tackle issues specific to its economy;

Unfortunately, inequalities in the higher education system remain.

A report by the Sunday Herald newspaper last month said that pupils can be nearly 18 times more likely to go to university than children educated just seven minutes apart.

An analysis of the numbers of pupils leaving school between 1999 and 2010 revealed the chances of young people entering higher education is still largely influenced by their postcode.

As the RSC also said in our response to Building a Smarter Future, access to the study of chemistry and chemical science based courses should be irrespective of the ability to pay or to travel long distances.

I mentioned 2020 earlier as the year we can double the economic contribution of the life sciences.

So let me tell you what the RSC is doing to facilitate that.

Our UK Chemistry Landscape project, a vision for the chemical sciences in 2020, will ensure that tomorrow's chemists have the right skills to define funding priorities for research.

We want to ensure a quality chemistry education is available to anyone with talent and ambition.

The project is split into four areas, focusing on the interface between industry and higher education, the future of higher education research and teaching, chemistry education at primary and secondary levels and cultivating a scientifically literate and numerate society. 

If you have not yet joined the debate, please do so via the RSC's website. 

Don't leave it to someone else to decide you or your children's future. 

Scientists are often criticised by politicians for talking to themselves and not to the decision makers.

Hopefully today that is not the case and we can all tell the decision makers what we really think!

And let us not forget the public.

The 2011 Public Attitudes to Science survey - the fourth of its kind - produced much food for thought.

There was the good: four-fifths agree that "on the whole, science will make our lives easier" and that "science is such a big part of our lives that we should all take an interest".

And the not so good: Only just over half (54%) agree that "the benefits of science are greater than any harmful effect" and 51% say they hear and see too little information about science.

Well, to this end it was great to see our event previewed on Newsnight last night. 

Perhaps we'll see an improvement in those figures at the next survey if the BBC continues reporting events such as this!

We work hard at the RSC to keep chemistry in the public eye.

Earlier this year, the BBC's flagship magazine programme, The One Show featured one of the school's taking part in our Global Experiment, more of which you will hear about shortly.

The experiment was at the centre of activities celebrating the International Year of Chemistry. 

Another important IYC project that will have a lasting legacy is the Chemistry Map of Scotland - dedicated to the memory of Dr Nigel Botting.

As many of you know, Nigel was a senior lecturer in Chemistry at the University of St Andrews until his untimely death this year.

He had a big presence in chemistry education in Scotland and was well known to many teachers and pupils. 

Every year, he organised the National Scottish Meeting for Teachers of Chemistry and the Scottish Council of Independent Schools Chemistry Masterclass.

He also hosted the St Andrew's Salters' Chemistry Camp as well as giving various demonstration lectures and helping school pupils with their Advanced Higher projects.

He also served on the Scottish RSC Education Committee.  As a long term member and, latterly, chairman of the Tayside local section of the RSC he organised the annual ChemBus, bringing exciting chemistry to S2 pupils in schools across the region.

The Top of the Bench chemistry quiz competition, Chemistry at Work - where school pupils meet people from the Chemical industry - and the RSC Christmas lectures were several more of Nigel's projects.

He was a key figure in the establishment of the Chemistry Map of Scotland - with pupils researching their local area for people, places, discoveries and inventions relating to chemistry.

Some pupils will have uncovered details of one such great Scottish chemist of the past.

And in the 200th anniversary of his birth, the Royal Society of Chemistry today honours the work of James "Paraffin" Young with the award of our chemical landmark plaque.

The blue plaque will be located at the Bennie Museum in Bathgate, West Lothian, close to where Young discovered a multitude of uses for shale oil, thus transforming the West Lothian landscape.

Young paid for statues in memory of his great friend, the adventurer David Livingstone and to his old mentor Thomas Graham - at Glasgow Cathedral and in George Square respectively. 

We have a school named after him in Livingstone and a chair named after him at Strathclyde.

Surely it is time Scotland pays for a statue in James Young's honour to inspire the scientists of the future.

We are here today to discuss and debate many things, which I hope you find both stimulating and thought-provoking. 

But there is no debate that chemistry research has changed our way of living for the better and increased our quality of life.

Long may it continue.

Thank you very much.