Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Chemistry: 21st Century Science for the Global Economy

By Paul Mulvaney

It’s time for public recognition of the fact that, in a country where almost all of the 92 natural elements can be found, chemistry offers Australia sustainable economic prosperity.

In sharp contrast to other major science disciplines such as physics, mathematics and biology, chemistry is the only “fundamental” science that has a specific industry attached to it. Chemistry as a discipline has been a significant contributor to the wealth, prosperity and health of the human species. Over the past 5000 years it is chemistry, more than any other discipline, that has made our global civilisation possible. Chemical discoveries led to technological revolutions in our past – from Stone Age to Bronze Age to Iron Age, and hence to steel, plastics, petroleum, silicon, DNA and, most recently, graphene.

Early civilisations learned how to extract simple metals and to process them, which provided an initial military advantage and eventually long-term economic superiority. Likewise, the civilisations that developed gunpowder gained ascendancy in many areas around the globe.

New materials such as cement, mortar and concrete, glass and plastic have led in turn to increased urbanisation and to larger, longer-lasting buildings. The industrial revolution was enabled by rapid improvements in understanding the thermo­dynamics of fossil fuel combustion, and this led to global power shifts to countries that were able to implement these innovations on an industrial scale.

The long history of chemistry often leads people to underestimate its current strength both as a scientific discipline and as a global powerhouse for manufacturing. In 2014 the chemicals industry contributed 4.9% of global GDP and the sector had gross revenues of US$5.2 trillion. That corresponds to US$800 for every man, woman and child on the planet.

During the 21st century, chemistry will continue to define the directions of technological change. For example, chemical research and development will contribute to energy-efficient LEDs, solar cells, electric vehicle batteries, water desalination technology, biodiagnostics, advanced materials for durable clothing, aerospace, defence, agriculture and medicine.

The future for chemistry is rosy, yet its image is often clouded by comparatively minor mishaps. It’s time for public recognition of the fact that, in a country where almost all of the 92 natural elements can be found, chemistry offers Australia sustainable economic prosperity.

Chemistry is the largest scientific discipline; 29 of Australia’s universities have dedicated chemistry departments. Contrary to popular belief there is close to gender balance, with 56% of all graduates in chemistry being male. The mean graduation age is 22, with their starting salaries at $50,000 per annum. Currently, around 50% of chemists work in industry, 25% in universities or teaching and most of the remaining 24% are employed in government laboratories.

Chemicals and plastics supply 109 of Australia’s 111 industries. There are more than 60,000 people employed in the chemical industry. It’s our second largest manufacturing sector, contributing $11.6 billion annually to Australia’s GDP.

These are impressive figures, but long-term strategies and a national focus are required to maintain this performance. A major effort is needed on several fronts.

First, it is clear that all manufacturing processes need to pay attention to waste and recycling. The development of cradle-to-grave manufacturing systems will increase the lifetime of raw resources and minimise environmental impact. New chemical methods to help with plastics, polymer and rubber recycling can open up new markets.

Second, Australian researchers need to better connect to industry, and industry in turn needs to invest more of its income into R&D, which remains very low by OECD standards.

Third, we need national strategies and a long-term commitment to helping nascent industries remain afloat long enough to secure market share. New Zealand has been highly innovative in this regard.

While 40% of companies in many European countries have interactions with universities, only 4% of Australian companies report such links. Australia can do much better in exploiting its strong research base. The chemistry community must work together more effectively to create a genuine “value-adding chain”. Profitable chemistry-based companies create high-quality jobs, which in turn attract students to stay in science. Better linkages between universities and industry will ensure that Australia can generate the products needed to maintain high living standards.

Governments need to support this value-adding chain by developing long-lasting bipartisan policies that foster risk-taking and greater investment in manufacturing. The Asia-Pacific rim will be at the vanguard of economic and political growth in the next 50 years. We need to ensure that Australasian science also leads the world.

Prof Paul Mulvaney is Chair of the National Committee for Chemistry, and is based at The University of Melbourne’s School of Chemistry & Bio21 Institute.