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Chemical Sciences in Development

OWC - Origins and Meaning

Origins of ‘One-World’ Chemistry
Since its foundation in the early 1980s, IOCD has worked to engage chemists from around the world in tackling major challenges in areas including human health, agriculture, the environment, conservation, exploration and sustainable, equitable development of biotic resources.
During a conference on Chemistry Education as an Agent in Global Progress in June 2015, IOCD scientist Stephen Matlin gave a paper on ‘The Contribution of the Chemical Sciences to Global Progress: Achievements, Prospects and Challenges’. In the course of his presentation, he drew on the example of the global health threat posed by anti-microbial resistance and noted that the solution being encouraged was a ‘One Health’ approach which recognized that animal and human health and the environment are inter-connected. He commented that “we need to have a similar orientation in our thinking about the chemical sciences, which projects them as taking a harmonized and comprehensive systems approach to understanding and solving global challenges”.
Subsequently, Matlin and three other IOCD scientists, Goverdhan Mehta, Henning Hopf and Alain Krief, developed this idea further and elaborated it into the concept of ‘One-World’ Chemistry. The IOCD group published a paper in Nature Chemistry in 2016, introducing the concept which embodies the group's view that chemistry must go beyond ‘being a science’ and embrace ‘being a science for the benefit of society’.
One-World Chemistry is a vision of how chemistry and related molecular sciences can work for the benefit of people, the biosphere and the physical environment of the planet, ensuring that future development is sustainable.
The figure below summarises the concept of One-World Chemistry and how these its goals link with the approaches and orientations envisaged and the roles that the chemical sciences can play.
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.
In fact, the chemical sciences are at the heart of every aspect of productive human activity, for example playing a substantial role in our nutrition, health and wellbeing; in our sources of energy and materials; and in our transport, work and recreation. For more about the contributions of the chemical sciences to development, click here
The Need for a Unified Approach
The need for a unified approach to human wellbeing, health and development, to animal health and to the conservation of the biological and physical environments has become increasingly evident in recent years. Examples of growing problems that have been recognised include:
  • By-products and waste products from manufacturing processes &ndsh; and the actual products themselves when they are scrapped – sometimes find their way into the environment, damaging the biosphere and the environment. Examples include waste plastic, ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons and greenhouse gases.
  • Agricultural production has been increased dramatically in the last hundred years due to the development of fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides and plant growth regulators as well as to the development of new, higher-yielding plant varieties. These advances ensured that there was sufficient food on the planet to feed the world's rapidly population during the 20th century, but as the population continues to grow, further increases in the volume and efficiency of production will be essential. However, the use of fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides and plant growth regulators can have impacts on plants, insects, birds, animals and people and they must be properly tested, regulated and monitored for all their effects if they are to be used safely and in a sustainable way.
  • Many pharmaceuticals that provide immense benefit to human health also find their way into the environment and cause harm to diverse other species. Examples include effects on fish, birds and animals.
  • The development of antibiotic resistance by micro-organisms presents one of the greatest challenges to global health in the 21st century. Anti-microbial resistance (AMR) in bacteria, fungi and parasites results from natural evolutionary changes caused by their exposure to antibiotic dugs – and this is related to a complex set of factors that include the use of drugs in human health and animal husbandry and their leakage into the environment:
    • Antibiotics have saved countless millions of lives since their introduction in the first half of the 20th century. But their over-use and misuse (including for viral infections, where they are ineffective; and failure by patients to complete courses of treatment, which favours the selection of resistant organisms) and leakage into the environment (including through waste water and refuse dumping) have contributed to the evolution of resistance.
    • Extensive use of antibiotics in agricultural production, both to protect farm animals from infection and to promote their growth, has encouraged the evolution of AMR.
    • Run-off from agricultural production, as well as the transfer of human water and solid wastes contaminated with antibiotics, into the environment has contributed to the evolutionary selection pressures that promote AMR.
  • For most of the 20th century, the efficient discovery and commercialization of new natural and synthetic antibiotics by the pharmaceutical industry meant that there was a steady pipeline of new drugs able to combat emerging AMR problems. However, since 1988 not a single new class of antibiotics has been developed for human use and the armoury of available antibiotics is decreasing rapidly. This ‘antibiotic void’ has resulted from declining commercial incentives for the production of new antibiotics, as well as structural changes in the pharmaceutical industry itself that have impacted on the innovation system. The world is now almost at the point of running out of antibiotics that are effective against life-threatening infections caused by resistant organisms. This would have a major impact on human health and on the practice of medicine, with many hospital procedures – including all surgery – becoming much riskier.
  • AMR presents a clear example where systems effects – including the systems concerned with the innovation of new antibiotic drugs, with the rational use of antibiotics in human and animal health and with the transfer of antibiotics into the wider environment – are central to an understanding of the emergence of a major, global challenge and where attention must be given to all of the overlapping systems in developing solutions to what will otherwise be a global crisis for human health.
  • Reserves of the Earth's natural resources, including fresh water, minerals and fossil fuels, are finite. With the increasing growth of pressures from population expansion, urbanization and economic development, many of these resources are now facing prospects of depletion and severe shortages in the 21st century. Sustainable processes for the production of energy, clean water and materials need to become the core of science, innovation and commerce if the world is to move from a destructive track of over-consumption of its natural resources to a constructive track of balance, conservation and sustainable development. The chemical sciences have a central contribution to make to these sustainable approaches, requiring an enhanced awareness of how the multiple global systems of resources and physical and ecological environments interact.
Ethical Science for the Benefit of Society
While physicians have the Hippocratic Oath, there has been no equivalent set of ethical principles to guide the conduct of those working in the chemical sciences. The physicians' principle of ‘do no harm’ is a good starting point for all practitioners of the sciences (as well as everyone else in society). In 2015, a group of chemists (including Henning Hopf, one of the authors of ‘one-world’ chemistry) convened by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons developed a consensus in the form of The Hague Ethical Guidelines based on ‘norms of the practice of chemistry’. The main elements of the guidelines align closely with the principles of ‘one-world’ chemistry.

Main elements of the Hague Ethical Guidelines:

  • Core element. Achievements in the field of chemistry should be used to benefit humankind and protect the environment.
  • Sustainability. Chemistry practitioners have a special responsibility for promoting and achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals of meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
  • Education. Formal and informal educational providers, enterprise, industry and civil society should cooperate to equip anybody working in chemistry and others with the necessary knowledge and tools to take responsibility for the benefit of humankind, the protection of the environment and to ensure relevant and meaningful engagement with the general public.
  • Awareness and engagement. Teachers, chemistry practitioners, and policymakers should be aware of the multiple uses of chemicals, specifically their use as chemical weapons or their precursors. They should promote the peaceful applications of chemicals and work to prevent any misuse of chemicals, scientific knowledge, tools and technologies, and any harmful or unethical developments in research and innovation. They should disseminate relevant information about national and international laws, regulations, policies and practices.
  • Ethics. To adequately respond to societal challenges, education, research and innovation must respect fundamental rights and apply the highest ethical standards. Ethics should be perceived as a way of ensuring high-quality results in science.
  • Safety and security. Chemistry practitioners should promote the beneficial applications, uses, and development of science and technology while encouraging and maintaining a strong culture of safety, health, and security.
  • Accountability. Chemistry practitioners have a responsibility to ensure that chemicals, equipment and facilities are protected against theft and diversion and are not used for illegal, harmful or destructive purposes. These persons should be aware of applicable laws and regulations governing the manufacture and use of chemicals, and they should report any misuse of chemicals, scientific knowledge, equipment and facilities to the relevant authorities.
  • Oversight. Chemistry practitioners who supervise others have the additional responsibility to ensure that chemicals, equipment and facilities are not used by those persons for illegal, harmful or destructive purposes.
  • Exchange of information. Chemistry practitioners should promote the exchange of scientific and technical information relating to the development and application of chemistry for peaceful purposes.


  1. The Hague Ethical Guidelines. Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (2015).
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