Growing Chemistry to a Real “Central Science”
I have long been engaged in research, education, and policymaking in science and technology in Japan, and I notice the time has been rapidly changing. Now science is inevitably intertwined with society, as declared at the World Conference on Science in Budapest in 1999. Science and technology are meant to enrich the security and peaceful sovereignty of every nation and human sustainability. In this regard, you should be proud of being chemists. Chemistry goes beyond mere observation and understanding of Nature. Our science is capable of generating very high values from almost nothing. In fact, man-made substances and materials determine the quality of our life.
In this regard, however, chemistry cannot stand alone. I would like to emphasize that science is to be regarded as a single entity because it is based on common natural laws. Chemistry must maximize its potential based on this point of view. All scientific disciplines, in my view, are founded on materials and substances and connected by mathematics and information. Therefore, chemistry should aim at growing to a real “central science” by interacting with all kinds of surrounding research fields.
As such, our rather conservative younger generation is required to radically change their mindset through exposure to other disciplines and advanced technologies, thereby exploring new possibilities. We must break by all means the unnecessary, long-standing tenacious walls that divide scientific disciplines. Seniors in academia should encourage the youth to shape the future of chemistry in such a way.
Is the Chemical Industry “Fit for Future”?
With regard to chemistry-based technology, the benefits to mankind are crystal clear. Without the endeavor of the chemical industry, we could not have realized the affluent, civilized society we live in today.
However, a bright light also casts a dark shadow. The power of the chemical industry sometimes gets out of control, and, in fact, for too long, the production endeavor has been controlled by external social events, changing only when circumstances demanded it. If we passively wait for what is to come, the pace of change today puts us at risk. This is very true and not clever, I am afraid.
A recent problem in this respect is the serious ocean pollution caused by the release of huge volumes––up to 9 million tons annually––of plastic waste. How to avoid the catastrophic consequence? Chemists are expected to devise new solutions in this regard. But in order to maintain the quality of civilization, all stakeholders including, particularly, consumers must take responsibility and implement appropriate action. This is crucial.
Role of Scientists in Different Regions of the World
The advanced countries in North America and Europe have been the main drivers of modern civilization. We did praise their philosophy and enjoy the benefits but, regretfully, uncontrolled and excessive human activities are triggering drastic climate fluctuations and environmental changes, leading our society to a crisis.
Thus, “mighty is right”, a so-far overwhelmed notion is confronted with correction in a way to secure sustainability. I believe it is the Asian–Pacific region that plays a key role to innovate a new value for future generations worldwide.
Louis Pasteur stated, “Science finds no borders, but scientists have their fatherland”. We share scientific knowledge worldwide, but the way of thinking or the origin of creativity in our Asia–Pacific region is different from those of Americans and Europeans, just because of our unique cultural backgrounds.
Since the beginning of this century, chemical science has made phenomenal advances in our region, achieving numerous research outcomes, and giving birth to outstanding young scientists.
The 20th century was an era of international competition, symbolized by war and economic rivalry. In this century, however, we will have to cooperate for the survival of our species within the limits of this planet. China is in a harsh geopolitical conflict with the US, but I do hope this big neighbor will return to our community to achieve the common goal of humankind.
The text is taken from Ryoji Noyori’s speech at the opening of the 2021 Ryoji Noyori ACES Award Symposium on October 21, 2021.
Author: Ryōji Noyori, Nagoya University and Japan Science and Technology Agency, is a 2001 Nobel laureate in chemistry for his development of chirally catalyzed hydrogenation reactions.