IOCD Logo IOCD Logo International Organization
Chemical Sciences in Development

About: The Chemical Sciences

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 and 20th 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 textiles.

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 research).
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 (MDGs). However, uneven progress has been made and without a major push many MDG targets for 2015 are likely to be missed in most regions. 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) for development.
The report, of the Task Force on Science, Technology and Innovation of the UN Millennium Project identified the important roles that ST&I can 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. The report outlined key areas for policy action, including:
  • focusing on platform (generic) technologies
  • improving infrastructure services as a foundation for technology
  • improving higher education in science and engineering and redefining the role of universities
  • promoting business activities in science, technology, and innovation
  • improving the policy environment
  • focusing on areas of underfunded research for development.
Juma, 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 purchased:
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

Sustainable development

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 in the last 15 years. While the Millennium Development Goals agreed by the world's governments at the UN in 2000 focused on specific problems in poorer countries, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agreed in the UN Summit in September 2015 embrace a global vision of development for all and with responsibility shared by all countries. For details of the SDGs click here.
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.
Top of Page Top of Page