The chemical sciences provide understanding of the physical and chemical properties of atoms and
molecules and practical methods for creating new molecular structures with useful applications.
Chemistry is a ‘platform science’, contributing to fundamental aspects of a range of
other sciences and underpinning the dramatic advances seen in recent decades in such fields as
biotechnology, energy, the environment, genetics, materials and medicine.
Role Of The Chemical Sciences In Development
Advances in science and technology (S&T) enabled countries in Europe and North America to
industrialize rapidly in the 19th
centuries. For example,
industrialization in Belgium drew on the Solvay process for manufacture of soda, which helped
establish to Belgium as one of the world's leading countries in the chemical industry sector. Thanks
to continuing, long-term development of its chemical industries, on a per capita basis in 2007
Belgium was the number one producer of chemicals in the world and the share of the chemical industry
in Belgium's economy was even bigger than that in Germany.
Since the mid-20th century, the importance of S&T for development has increasingly
been recognised by international agencies, development assistance partners and the governments of
low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). One outstanding example of success is the case of Taiwan,
whose per capita Gross National Product rose from US$ 919 in the 1950s to US$ 7358 in 1990, as the
agrarian economy was transformed into an export-oriented industrial one. By the early 1990s, the
chemical industry was the largest industrial sector, contributing 24.2% of the total production
value of US$ 165.3 billion, but only 8.5% directly to export sales of US$ 95.6 billion. This
demonstrates the strategic importance of the chemical industry as a supplier of materials and
chemicals in underpinning other export industries, including electrical/electronic goods and
Overall, during the last two centuries, the chemical sciences have contributed enormously both to
broad improvements in human well-being (including enhancements in life expectancy, health and
quality of life) and to wealth creation for individuals and nations. Landmark examples include:
- Innovations in the generation, storage and use of energy
Developments in electrochemistry and synergies with physics and engineering in the
19th century led to the invention of methods for producing electrical energy,
which has impacted on virtually every aspect of human activity. Subsequently, chemistry has
continued to provide innovations such as high-performance fuels and lightweight, durable,
rechargeable batteries and fuel cells, supporting a range of new technologies in such
diverse areas as transport, information and communications technologies (ICTs) and medicine.
- Creation of new materials
Electrochemistry provided the basis for the industrial transformation of many materials,
including the production of metals such as aluminium and important feedstocks such as
caustic soda and chlorine. Industrial organic chemistry built on mid-19th century
processes for manufacturing synthetic dyestuffs and by the 20th century had
expanded to include the synthesis of pharmaceuticals. Chemistry has given the world a wide
array of new materials, including polymers, plastics, semi-conductors and super-conductors,
with applications from fabrics and structural materials to computers, ICTs and medical
imaging and diagnostics.
- Advances in agriculture, food and nutrition
Through the development of fertilizers, plant growth regulators and pesticides, the chemical
sciences assisted many of the advances in the ‘green revolution’ — a
massive expansion of agricultural production that helped to feed the world's population
while it grew from 1.7 billion to 6 billion during the 20th century. They have
also contributed to new technologies for food processing, preservation and storage which
facilitated the development of global food enterprises and helped bring many food products
from LMICs to the global marketplace. Explorations of the chemical content of foods and the
chemistry of metabolic processes also underpinned the great advances seen in our knowledge
of the relationship between diet, nutrition, metabolism and health in the last century.
- Better health
In parallel with advances in public health (reducing the spread of infectious diseases
through improved water, sanitation and vaccination; and improving health through ensuring
optimal nutrition — all areas where chemistry has played a major role), pharmaceutical
chemistry has contributed enormously to improving life expectancy and the quality of life
through the development of medicinal products for the treatment of a range of infectious
diseases and metabolic disorders and the control of pain.
- Economic growth
The value added by these products of chemistry and related sciences has contributed to the
rapid growth seen in world Gross Domestic Product, especially in the industrially advanced
countries during the second half of the 20th century. Knowledge-intensive and
technology-intensive industries, a significant proportion of which are rooted in the
chemical sciences, are estimated to have accounted for 30 percent of global economic output,
or some US$ 15.7 trillion, in 2007.
But the benefits from advances in chemistry and other sciences have not been evenly distributed
globally. The least industrially and technologically advanced countries have remained the
poorest and people in LMICs often have much lower life expectancies than those in high-income
countries. A large part of the inequalities can be traced to major differences in rates of
technical progress (i.e. a combination of technological advances and their diffusion and
uptake in different countries and the capacities of the countries themselves to conduct and apply
Efforts to tackle the large global inequities
reflected in the high levels of poverty,
illiteracy, ill health, gender inequality, lack of access to improved water and sanitation and poor
environment seen in LMICs led to agreement by the world's governments in 2000 on the
Millennium Development Goals
According to the
United Nations Development Programme
achieving the goals requires a collective global effort harnessing political will and available
resources in all areas, including harnessing science, technology, and innovation (ST&I)
of the Task Force on Science, Technology and Innovation of the UN Millennium Project identified the
important roles that ST&I could play in achieving the MDGs and stressed the importance of
ST&I policies tailored to the specific needs and circumstances of each country and the need to
create international partnerships that allow mutual learning.
a co-author of the Task Force report, has argued that institutions of higher learning, especially
universities, should have a direct role in helping to solve the development challenges.
A detailed account of the role of the chemical sciences in development
can be found in the
review by IOCD scientists Stephen Matlin
and Berhanu Abegaz
S.A. Matlin, B.M. Abegaz, Chemistry for Development, in J. Garcia-Martinez, E.
Serrano-Torregrosa (Eds), The Chemical Element: Chemistry's Contribution to Our Global
Future, Wiley-VCH, Weinheim, 2011, Chapter 1, 1-70.
The chapter serves as an introduction to the book, published by Wiley-VCH to mark the 2011
International Year of Chemistry, which covers the multi-faceted contributions that chemistry makes
to human wellbeing and in which prominent scientists highlight the role of chemistry in the fight
against the biggest problems faced by humanity. The chapter by Matlin and Abegaz can be downloaded
free as a ‘sample chapter’ from the book's website, where the whole book can be
The book is under the patronage of UNESCO — the highest form of the organization's
support, granted to show its moral endorsement of an exceptional activity. In her personal letter to
the editors announcing the award of patronage, UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova commented that
“This is an excellent initiative that will contribute to the objectives of the
International Year of Chemistry by promoting a better appreciation and understanding of chemistry
among the public and young people. I would like to commend you and all the scientists involved in
the production of the book. Your focus on the critical areas addressed by the Millennium Development
Goals makes this work even more relevant to today's society.”
The Chemical Sciences and the UN Sustainable Development Goals
Alterations to the entire global environment - air, land and sea - occasioned by human activity have
accelerated in the last 200 years resulting in global warming, damage to the protective ozone layer
and depletion of natural resources. Increasing use of energy, industrial activities, population
growth and urbanization add pressure to the Earth system. It has become clear that major changes are
now needed if multiple crises (e.g. in food, water, climate, energy) are to be averted and the
planet is to move to a path of sustainability.
Chemistry has a dual role in this unfolding picture. It must accept responsibility as one of the
sources of many of the processes and products that have inadvertently contributed to the emerging
planetary crises. And it must also engage vigorously as one of the resources that can identify and
implement solutions to avert or mitigate the unfolding crises and provide sustainable processes and
products for the future development of the planet.
The global approach to development has undergone a profound shift during the 21st
century. The Millennium Development Goals agreed by the world's governments at the UN in 2000
focused on specific problems in poorer countries. At the UN in September 2015, governments of 193
nations committed to move to a pathway of sustainability, adopting 17
Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be achieved by 2030. The vision
of the SDGs – to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity – is a global
vision of development for all and with responsibility shared by all countries.
Chemistry's contribution is essential to meeting most, if not all, of these SDGs. Importantly, many
of these contributions require that chemistry works in close concert with other disciplines to
identify solutions that are practical, affordable and sustainable.
UN Sustainable Development Goals for 2030:
|Goal 1:||End poverty in all its forms everywhere|
|Goal 2:||End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture|
|Goal 3:||Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages|
|Goal 4:||Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning|
|Goal 5:||Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls|
|Goal 6:||Ensure access to water and sanitation for all|
|Goal 7:||Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all|
|Goal 8:||Promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment and decent work for all|
|Goal 9:||Build resilient infrastructure, promote sustainable industrialization and foster innovation|
|Goal 10:||Reduce inequality within and among countries|
|Goal 11:||Make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable|
|Goal 12:||Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns|
|Goal 13:||Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts|
|Goal 14:||Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources|
|Goal 15:||Sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation, halt biodiversity loss|
|Goal 16:||Promote just, peaceful and inclusive societies|
|Goal 17:||Revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development|
Chemistry's capacity for innovation and ability to serve as the basis of a wide range of
technologies mean that it can make a pivotal contribution to meeting the SDGs. The chemical
sciences can be drivers for poverty reduction and inclusive, sustainable economic growth and
industrialization (Goals 1,8,9). They can help reduce inequalities and make urban environments
resilient and sustainable (Goals 10,11) and help avert and mitigate climate change and its impacts.
They can assist in addressing environmental damage to air, sea and land (Goals 13,14,15), furnishing
new agricultural and pharmaceutical processes and products (Goals 2,3) and developing more efficient
and more sustainable processes for providing clean water, sanitation, energy and sustainable
production (Goals 6,7,12). The chemical sciences can play a role in the delivery of quality
education and lifelong learning that is based in gender equality and empowerment (Goal 4); assist in
countering military uses of chemical warfare and promoting disarmament and the peaceful uses of
technology (Goal 16); and across all these areas operate through global partnerships and alliances
that work for collective benefit to the health, well-being and sustainable development of all people
Nations Sustainable Development Summit, 25-27 Sep 2015. New York: UN 2015.
- Sustainable Development Goals.
New York: UN 2015.
- S.A. Matlin, G. Mehta, H. Hopf, A.
Krief. The role of chemistry in inventing a sustainable future. Nature Chemistry 2015,
- S.A. Matlin, G. Mehta, H. Hopf, A.
Krief. ‘One-world’ chemistry and systems thinking. Nature Chemistry 2016,
- H. Hopf, S.A.
Matlin, A. Krief, G. Mehta. Chemie für die eine Welt. Nachrichten aus der
Chemie, 2016, 64, 1190-1191.